The question of nature versus nurture in relation to human sexuality may never be concretely answered. Playwright Jane Anderson constructs nice moments, but her efforts, hampered by clipped and spliced scene structuring, ultimately suffer from the "made-for-TV movie" syndrome: One problem isn't enough, and 10,000 aren't too many.
Roy, a Midwestern tractor factory quality-control inspector, and his wife, Irma, married for 25 years, visit their minister for a counseling "tune-up." Eventually, Roy confides his deeply rooted conclusion that he is a woman trapped inside a man's body. The couple's struggle with this singular issue of medically assisted gender change would seem adequate plot fodder. Instead, Anderson's script provides a plethora of personal problems. Pubescent daughter Patty Ann leans toward lesbianism. Twenty-something son Wayne is impotent. Grandpa Roy Sr. is descending at a theatrically escalated pace into dementia. And with Irma suffering the onset of menopause, it's a wonder she doesn't pull out a gun at the Thanksgiving table and start mowing everyone down.
And yet the majority of this show's cast, in the caring hands of director Al D'Andrea, makes some excellent hay with the material Anderson provides. Where Roy could have become cartoonish, Bruce Katzman's multilayered portrayal is beautifully touching. His eyes subtly convey Roy's 40-plus years of internal angst. Even his anticipated appearances in female attire, courtesy of costumer Marjorie Baer, are handled with tasteful restraint. Laura Julian, as Irma, exudes loving confusion although her moments of explosive rage seem oddly restrained. Charles Howerton and Janet Hoskins infuse Roy's farm-bound parents with believable dignity. Their scenes, along with monologues delivered by Wendy Worthington, in an extraordinary turn as Roy's dead grandmother Ruth, serve up Anderson's backstory. Patric Knutsson's Wayne is fittingly appalled by his father's decision. Nicely understated turns are delivered as well by James Geralden as Reverend Muncie and Michael Merton as Roy's boss. Only Whitney Powell's portrayal of Patty Ann rings hollow. Obviously much older than 13, Powell's inappropriately overblown physicality grates against the honest realism that D'Andrea achieves with the rest of his cast.
Presented by Theatre Neo at the Secret Rose Theatre, 11246 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood. Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m. Sep. 8-Oct. 14. (323) 769-5858. www.theatreneo.com.