Last night, I sat in the audience for a rehearsal of Plan B Theatre Company’s Eric(a), which opens Feb. 28. It blew me away. Teresa Sanderson plays Eric, a 50-plus year-old transgender man, formerly Erica, an LDS mother of two.
Eric’s speaking at some event for transgender people; that’s the premise. Like: he has flyers, which he hands out. Teresa’s performance is extraordinary, utterly courageous, playing a character who does not consider himself a particularly courageous person. (He is, he’s far braver than he’s able to admit to himself). Eric excoriates himself, for his fearful unwillingness to tell people about his status, for what he perceives as timidity. And he wants to be a man–in fact, he wants what strike me as rather stereotypical attributes of masculinity: forcefulness, confidence. “I want to be Alpha!” he shouts repeatedly.
Meanwhile, Matthew Ivan Bennett’s script traces Eric’s life. We’re told of his childhood, of his mother, who loved dressing her daughter in pastel dresses, and who (in a richly comic moment) is told by a teacher that Erica wears jeans–in fact, the same pair of jeans, clandestinely purchased at Goodwill–day after day. “Dungarees!” shouts Teresa, embodying young Erica’s fearful impression of her forcefully feminine Mom.
We hear of the excruciating ritual of coming out, as Eric tells his grown daughter, who ferociously rejects everything about the message. Eric still loves her, still loves his grandchildren. She wants nothing to do with him; his other, older daughter, appears to be a little more on the fence. Eric’s alone. Loneliness and rejection–that’s what he’s chosen for himself. Or has had chosen for him by biology. Or, maybe some measure of both.
But he doesn’t want to be alone, and the most fiercely comic and moving part of the play is his description of a romantic relationship he has just begun to form with a divorced and vulnerable and amazing woman he meets in a bar, a gynecologist, Addie. Who he still has not been able to tell. And Addie seems to represent everything he’s so desperately craving–acceptance, love, companionship, understanding. After a long email relationship, and just two face-to-face dates, he goes to Addie’s apartment, and confesses that he’s been lying to her. He’s Eric, he’s divorced; that part is true. But he once was Erica. That’s the bit he hasn’t told her. And now Addie won’t see him anymore.
At this point, we’ve fallen in love with Eric, even if Addie has not. This is in part due to Teresa Sanderson’s performance. Teresa’s a tremendous actress–I’ve always known that, and have seen her many times, and have always admired her talent, her humor, her focus and charisma. But this, this is something else again. She held me completely riveted, every single second of the play.
So a lot of it is Teresa. But Matt Bennett’s script, my goodness. That voice. That amazing, richly poetic voice. There’s no one else like him in American theatre today. I was talking to a friend afterwards, trying to figure out who else sounds like MIB. Tennessee Williams comes to mind, that gift for unforgettable lines, that gift for metaphor. But Williams always felt, I don’t, closeted to me–locked into his own psycho-sexual obsessions, for doomed and forceful Southern belles and the mean bastards they marry. For Matt, it just feels effortless. It’s not–the man works as hard as any writer I know. But there’s a richness of language in his work that enables him to dig deep into these remarkable characters, helps us know them better than they know themselves.
That’s Eric. He’s a man who excoriates himself for cowardice, but whose courage astounds us, a man in despair, who expresses it through a grim kind of irony. A man who considers himself neither intelligent nor eloquent, but who speaks like a poet and scientist.
So transgendered studies is an academic thing and transgender rights is a political thing, and the plight of the transgendered also becomes a moral thing, a religious thing. And of course, culturally, it seems to be okay to use words (privately) like ‘freak’ and ‘ick’ and ‘gross.’ I have no idea where any of my readers are coming from here.
Let me say this, though, as a committed and practicing Christian, I place compassion at the top of my list of virtues, and I have never felt more compassion for a fictional character than I did for Eric. I have never seen more humanity expressed than here, in Matthew Ivan Bennett’s script and Teresa Sanderson’s performance and Jerry Rapier’s direction and Cheryl Cluff’s sound design, the whole production. See this play. It will open your mind, and it will open your heart.