Weathering change is one of the biggest tests of any relationship. Often the shift has to do with money or housing or pregnancy. For young couple Fiona and Alice, it’s even more fundamental; it goes to the very core of their identities.
The news — which launches an absorbing play called “Rotterdam” — emerges late one night as the pair banter about an email that Alice is agonizing over. Its topic: revealing to her parents that she’s a lesbian. When she finally lets Fiona have a look, Fiona is so struck by the email’s forthrightness that she feels compelled to share something she’s kept private during their half-dozen years together. Grasping for the right words, she stammers out: “I think I’m meant to be a man.”
The 2015 play by Englishman Jon Brittain joins a growing and absolutely essential list of shows about transgender lives. Brittain, a straight, cisgender 30-year-old, approaches the topic with tremendous empathy, envisioning characters who are fallible yet loving, always doing the best that they can as they try to find the way forward.
Winner of a 2017 Olivier Award in London and buzzed about in a festival appearance in New York this year, “Rotterdam” arrives in Los Angeles in a pitch-perfect staging at the Skylight Theatre in Los Feliz. Working with a gifted young cast, director Michael A. Shepperd, whose credits include the recent “The View UpStairs” at the Celebration, mines the play’s rich specificity in a production that often feels like a rom-com yet plunges so deeply into the heart of the matter that we respond with whole catalogs of emotion.
The story’s central couple, in their late 20s, are different yet complementary. Alice (portrayed by Miranda Wynne) is the sort who has to think things through, then think some more. Fiona (Ashley Romans) seems much more decisive. They are English yet live in Rotterdam, the Netherlands — a place that has become as much a state of mind as anything else. Alice realizes that she should return to England to face her parents and wholly acknowledge her love for women among people who know her, but she resists, hiding away in another country.
Then comes Fiona’s news. “You know this doesn’t change anything between us,” Fiona says to Alice, hoping for assurance. But so much is changing.
Fiona brings home binders to flatten her chest. Alice helps put one on, which requires almost a hug as she reaches around Fiona to tug at it. Love, longing and loss all play across Alice’s face. Fiona turns to look in a mirror and stares in wonder at the transformation.
Brittain, whose transgender friends inspired him to write the play, read extensively, interviewed transgender people and became involved with a nonprofit gender diversity group.
Fiona takes the name Adrian and dresses more masculinely. Scared yet increasingly self-assured, he becomes ever more himself.
As Fiona’s pronoun changes, Alice wrestles with her own identity, with which she was only just beginning to be comfortable. If she loves a man, what does she call herself now?
The couple don’t live in a vacuum, of course. With them on the journey is Josh (Ryan Brophy), who has complex ties to both. And there’s Lelani (Audrey Cain), Alice’s flirtatious colleague at work, radiating the boundless confidence of youth.
Jeff McLaughlin’s set design evokes the Rotterdam cityscape, complete with the cables of the Erasmus Bridge. The buildings, which are the same height as the actors, are cleverly engineered to transform into whatever furnishings are needed, whether in an apartment or a market.
Shepperd’s staging is so crisp that even the between-scenes set changes have a choreography to them.
The characters strive to celebrate each other, even if it causes them to let go of something.
It’s important to remember that this is just one story. As with any community, there are many possible journeys in the transgender community.
But Adrian touches on something universal when he says: “I don’t want to change the world. I just want people to see me the way I want to be seen. The way I am.”
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Where: Skylight Theatre, 1816½ N. Vermont Ave., L.A.
When: 8:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, 8 p.m. Mondays; ends Dec. 11
Info: (213) 761-7061, skylighttheatrecompany.org