Roy and Irma, married more or less happily for a quarter-century, have raised two kids, attend church regularly and appear to be an average family in the unspecified American heartland. Roy (Keith Marshall) comes from a farming family and works for John Deere. Irma (Shannon Warrick) takes care of the home with a steady hand and loving authority.
A wrench is thrown into the works of their otherwise "normal" lives, however, when, shortly after their silver wedding anniversary, Roy admits the secret he's been keeping for years: gender dysphoria. In other words, he's a woman trapped in a man's body and is no longer willing to live as a male.
Naturally, Irma is upset. At first she assumes her marriage is over, but Roy (later Ruth) insists that while he is transgender, and intends to not only "change pronouns" but go through with a sex-change operation, his love for Irma is unchanged. Irma still loves Roy, too, but is their bond strong enough to survive the upheaval? Roy is happy to finally stop living a lie, but the decision has far-reaching ramifications, not just at home but at work and in the community. It also raises questions such as: What's the correlation between gender and sexual preference? Is Roy gay or straight? And if she stays with Roy, what does that make Irma?
The plot follows Roy through the process of gender reassignment, including both physical and emotional developments along the way, and it's a fascinating and often touching journey. Loved ones wonder how they or others might have impacted Roy's condition. Did Irma emasculate him by being too competent? Was his tough father too hard on him, or his mother and sisters too soft?
And Roy's not the only family member struggling with issues of gender, sexuality and aging. Tomboyish pubescent daughter Patty Anne (Samantha Gorjanc) bemoans the onset of adolescence. For her, becoming a woman is a cross she'd rather not bear, and she finds it hard to believe her father would do so willingly. She struggles with her changing body and sexual identity, and delivers one of the frankest descriptions of the menstrual cycle and its side effects (complete with chart) I've ever witnessed.
Her big brother, Wayne (Tom Doud), has troubles (and a chart) of his own, including some dysfunction in the bedroom. Meanwhile Irma, at age 45, is going through menopause. She's suffering through hormone imbalances, hot flashes and the loss of her fertility. So watching her teen daughter (begrudgingly) and husband (eagerly) blossom into womanhood is like rubbing salt in a wound.
And Roy's elderly parents (Jack Penkethman and Jackie O'Keefe) are dealing with the formidable Roy Sr.'s decline into senility. Roy Sr., we learn, pushed his wife into having Roy Jr. after birthing several daughters because he couldn't imagine leaving his farm to anyone but a son. Back even farther up the family tree, the puckish spirit of Roy's long-lost grandmother Ruth (Bille Harris), appears from time to time to blithely share some revelations of her own, suggesting that gender fluidity is something of a familial tradition.
"Looking for Normal" is, at least in this commendable production directed by Marilyn Langbehn, noteworthy in that every character is quite sympathetic. Irma, Roy and their children seem like a natural, loving (albeit strained) family with realistic relationships. Their pastor (Dave Iverson), while clueless and ultimately hurtful, is well-meaning and earnest. Even cantankerous old Roy Sr., who at first comes across as loathsome, is revealed to be vulnerable and deeply wounded by his past. And Grandma Ruth is a delight, even (or perhaps especially) when confessing to some scandalous actions.
Warm, humorous moments combine nicely with the serious scenes, and the tone never veers too far in either direction. The play is well written, paced and directed, but much of the credit is also due to the excellent cast. It's a rare show in which every player is equally skilled. In this case, that's a good thing.
I have but one complaint: Some scenes were set so far downstage as to be rendered out of sight from my mid-theater seat.
"Looking for Normal" is highly recommended for its edgy-yet-sweet story, and Palo Alto Players executes it splendidly. Though not everyone will go through what Roy's family does, everyone can relate to the theme of challenges worth facing in the name of love.
What: "Looking for Normal" by Jane Anderson, presented by Palo Alto Players
Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
When: Through Feb. 3, with shows Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m.
Cost: Tickets are $29, with discounts for students, seniors and groups.
Info: Go to paplayers.org or call 650-329-0891.