Gabriel Ebert and John Cullum.  Credit: Matthew Murphy

Gabriel Ebert and John Cullum. Credit: Matthew Murphy

Back in the 1980’s a close friend of our family died. His sisters had stepped in as caretakers at the end. After he passed on, one of them was going through his things to and sorting his clothing. She found an entire drawer filled with lingerie. She took them out one by one to be certain they were not his wife’s who had died years before. His wife had been a tiny woman. The lingerie was for someone much larger. The sister sat on the bed and wept for a very long time. Then she took the lingerie and put it in the trash. His children never knew.

I was reminded of this when watching this splendid production of Casa Valentina, a story based on photos from an actual resort in the Catskills. In the 1960’s this was the place where men could go and get into something more comfortable. Like a girdle, and wig, and a dress. In this case there was actually a woman on the premises Rita (Mare Winningham) who is married to the official host Valentina – her husband George (Patrick Page). She is there because she loves him, and she accepts that he is a transvestite (They met when he stopped into her store to buy a wig), although by the end of the play we see that the situation is causing some serious frayed nerves and spirits.

Fierstein avoids being didactic for the most part, which is why the flow of the play is easy on the observer. We are never hit over the head with “the facts”. Instead he leads us into the lives of these men and lets their stories tell the tale. These men are not gay. They are cross dressers. At the center is George/Valentina who is on edge due to a certain Post Office inquiry regarding an envelope containing pornographic pictures. It was addressed to him but carried a note asking that the package be forwarded. The note was destroyed so all that is left is an idea of who sent them but not why. In any case, George is now a person of interest.

In addition, the Casa has seen better days, and in order to carry on they will need a loan. Hence the invitation for Charlotte (Reed Birney) who has some political clout and a vast network of “friends” since her own recent arrest and release. Charlotte will be bringing news of an opportunity to join the newly incorporated not for profit organization, The Sorority, the purpose of which is to protect its members, all of whom like herself and Valentina are transvestites. All Valentina has to do is get her ladies to sign up and the loan will be not far behind.

The fly in the ointment comes when Charlotte explains that part of the membership process is #1) to go public with their identities and #2) to declare war on homosexuals. Homosexuals are perverts who should be shunned at all costs.

Fifty years from now, when homosexuals are still scuttling about as the back-alley vermin of society, cross dressing will be as everyday as cigarette smoking.

This is about the only place where Fierstein gets preachy, but this cast is so focused on these people that the moment quickly blends into the larger tapestry. This discussion that erupts makes it clear that each person has a separate identity that needs to be protected. In addition there is the allegiance they have to others who are treated as social outcasts. They will not betray homosexuals. End of conversation. No one will join. Therefore no loan. Therefore no Casa. Therefore what will happen to everyone? And what about those damn pictures??

While the entire cast is excellent, my eye kept wandering to John Cullum (Terry) who has always had a certain grace and presence on the stage. As the oldest of the bunch Terry brings a vulnerability and strength that suits her years. How long did she live with her secret before she found her “family”? It must have been decades. Decades of feeling shut off from life. Her inclusion in the cast lineup and Cullum’s exceptional performance add a layer of authenticity that lingers long after the curtain falls.

Even as the walls of so much prejudice are tumbling, we are still a suspicious species. If it is not like what we see in the mirror (and who REALLY looks there) then it is “other” and it is not to be trusted. Even here in our melted community – Sikh beards are being pulled; Muslims are being spied upon; Stop and Frisk is still the order of the day. If it is happening here, give some thought to what the heck is going on out there in the hinterlands, would you?

This play is a wakeup call. We must seek out and nurture the Casa Valentina’s that are in our midst. They are there right under our noses. Everyone needs a place to breathe.

Casa Valentina – By Harvey Fierstein; directed by Joe Mantello

WITH: Reed Birney (Charlotte), John Cullum (Terry), Gabriel Ebert (Jonathon/Miranda), Lisa Emery (Eleanor), Tom McGowan (Bessie), Patrick Page (George/Valentina), Larry Pine (the Judge/Amy), Nick Westrate (Gloria) and Mare Winningham (Rita).

Sets by Scott Pask; costumes by Rita Ryack; lighting by Justin Townsend; music and sound by Fitz Patton; hair, wig and makeup design by Jason P. Hayes; fight director, Thomas Schall; production stage manager, William Joseph Barnes; artistic producer, Mandy Greenfield; general manager, Florie Seery. Presented by Manhattan Theater Club, Lynne Meadow, artistic director; Barry Grove, executive producer; by special arrangement with Colin Callender, Robert Cole, Frederick Zollo and the Shubert Organization. At the Samuel J. Friedman Theater, 261 West 47th Street, 212-239-6200, Through June 15. Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes.