What’s a mother to do? Big-haired, small-town Texas mom Trisha Lee is taken aback when her teenage daughter Jolene announces to her that from now on she should no longer be considered a girl but gender-neutral, so please call her “Jo(e)” and refer to her by the pronoun “they.”
The semantics of gender politics is the least of Trisha’s problems, once her unconditional-love, mother-hen instincts kick in and she finds herself speaking up in church, defending LGBTQ rights and colluding with those left-wing lawyers of the ACLU. The last thing she expected to ever be was a gender freedom activist, but boy, does she rise to the task.
Her outspoken position on the subject gets Trisha ostracized by her friends and by people she never knew, as well as receiving death threats on her answering machine. But Trisha never wavers from supporting her child, even if she cannot really understand what this trans thing is all about.
Apparently something similar happened to Elise Forier Edie, who then sat down and wrote The Pink Unicorn, a one-woman play full of been-there insights and Southern colloquial humor. As produced by edgy Primal Forces – arguably its most conventional stage work yet – the evening is motored by a tour de force, pitch-perfect performance by Laura Turnbull, full of folksy bewilderment.
In her rambling monologue, Trisha introduces us to unctuous, hand cream-rubbing school principal Makepeace, incensed by Jo’s efforts to found a Gay-Straight Alliance and to challenge his gender-rigid dress code for the yearbook photos. Also brought to life are Trisha’s perplexed and disapproving mother, a closeted lesbian who thinks she sees a kindred spirit in Trisha and her church’s spiritual leader with the unfortunate name of Pastor Dick.
Turnbull is no stranger to solo plays, having excelled with the Sue Mengers biography I’ll Eat You Last at GableStage a few seasons ago. Here she creates a wholly sympathetic, maternal character, full of colorful Southern similes, delivered with a twinkle in her eye and an unforced Texas drawl.
Genie Croft directs with an effort to use the entire playing space at Empire Stage and every chair in Trisha’s home. We can forgive the overly busy staging, but not the mawkish music that suddenly crops up at the 11th hour as Edie gets serious and offers a message of understanding and inclusion. For that matter, the production also did not need Nate Sykes’ self-conscious lighting effects, which often halo Turnbull in a too-theatrical spotlight.
For when you have an actress as winning and natural as Turnbull, and a script as funny and pointed as The Pink Unicorn, the best thing the director and designers should do is get out of the way and let her work her legerdemain.
THE PINK UNICORN, Primal Forces at Empire Stage, 1140 N. Flagler Drive, Fort Lauderdale. Through Sunday, July 8. $30. 866-811-4111.