A man yearns to be herself

Times Staff Writer

The saleslady is acutely uncomfortable as she rings up purchases -- dresses, a wig, earrings -- for tall, broad-shouldered Roy. He's been getting this reaction a lot lately. On his pickup truck, parked outside, someone has written "You are not normal" in the Illinois farm soil that coats one of its doors.

Roy -- the central character in "Normal," being shown on HBO Sunday night at 10 -- is evidence that the world is much more complicated than some people would like it to be. On the one hand, he conforms to standards: He's been married 25 years, has two kids and is a pillar of his church. Then came the announcement, "I was born in the wrong body," and his decision to proceed with a sex-change operation.

This prompts a reevaluation of gender roles, as well as his place within family, church and community. Tom Wilkinson as Roy and Jessica Lange as his wife, Irma, make the journey with openness, grit and truth.

In selecting rural America as the setting, writer-director Jane Anderson, who based the movie on her play "Looking for Normal," throws issues into sharp relief. This is iconic America, breadbasket of the nation's values. The film captures it perfectly: the fields that run right up to the edge of backyards, the kitchens decorated with country-print wallpaper, the Jell-O salads at potluck get-togethers.

To come to terms with Roy, the people in this homespun setting must take a deeper look into themselves. Some, like Roy and Irma's pastor (Randall Arney), proceed as sensitively as they know how. Still, they try to turn Roy into what they want him to be. They seek to simplify life, when the great, wondrous miracle of its diversity is staring them in the face.

Since the play's introduction at the Geffen Playhouse in 2001, Anderson, whose writing credits include "The Baby Dance" and "The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom," has found new ways of introducing information previously contained in stage-bound monologues, while expanding the action to show more of Roy's effect on the community.

Like Beau Bridges, who played Roy at the Geffen, Wilkinson (an Oscar nominee for "In the Bedroom") has a look that reads 100% guy. He'll be exceedingly unlovely as a woman, which makes his journey all the more poignant. Lange, meanwhile, must work harder against type than Laurie Metcalf, who originally played Irma. But by approaching the role delicately and honestly, Lange transforms her too-perfect, porcelain elegance into wholesome, everyday grace.

Anderson sees how odd -- hence, how funny -- her characters' situation can be, and she invites us to laugh along. But she doesn't stint on the very real pain they go through. Change is hard. Life is complex. That's just normal.



When: Sunday, 10 p.m., HBO

Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children younger than 17)

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