If you’ve ever flown in a half-empty plane on a regional airline you might have been asked to move to another section of seating so as to balance weight across the cabin. That balance provides a stability known as “ballast.” In other uses, ballast may need to be discarded once it has served its purpose.
Ballast is not only the title but the central metaphor of a thoughtful, eloquent, world premiere play by Georgette Kelly, now playing at Diversionary Theatre. It’s a study of efforts to provide stability in relationships where one of the partners is transgender and in the process of transitioning.
Two relationships are featured in the 90-minute, no intermission, production. In the first, Zoe (Jacque Wilke) has supported her minister husband, who has transitioned and is now known as Grace (Dana Aliya Levinson). She has remained married and hopes that Grace will settle well into a new parish assignment. In the other relationship, 16-year-old Savannah (Jennifer Paredes) supports her childhood friend, Xavier (Maxton Miles Baeza), who has known from a young age that he was a boy and who dresses and acts like a boy, much to the dismay of his mother (Dana Case).
The two stories cross as the result of online chat room conversations between Grace and Xavier. They agree to meet in person, and Xavier confides his difficulties with his mother. Grace, who is going through difficulties of her own with her bishop (Ms. Case, again), invites Xavier to spend a night or two in her home. Zoe, who is a social worker by profession, is unhappy that Grace has broken what she considers to be professional distance. But, Xavier stays, one night becomes multiple nights, and soon Savannah is staying there as well. Savannah, it turns out, is more of a de-stabilizing force on Xavier when it’s just the two of them together.
Ms. Kelly examines these relationships from the perspective of each of the four major characters, though, necessarily the trans characters receive more attention. Her characters play out their relationship struggles as well as their fantasies. Ms. Kelly not only focuses on how the trans characters search to re-define who they are but how the cis-gender characters find that they look for ways of expressing themselves in these evolving relationships. Zoe finds an escape by taking flying lessons from a masculine instructor (Skyler Sullivan), while Savannah uses her romantic feelings as a way expressing adolescent rebellion.
Director Matt M. Morrow has assembled a fluid production that shifts quickly between locales and between reality and fantasy (credit projections by Tara Knight for enabling the fantasy sequences). Ron Logan’s abstract set design, along with Sherrice Mojgani’s eerie lighting design, and Emily Jankowski’s sound design work together to aid these rapid shifts, while Elisa Benzoni’s costume design and Bonnie Durben’s properties provide necessary realistic grounding.
The cast works well, both individually and as an ensemble. Ms. Wilke is known for her comic roles, but here she tries to be steady and supportive while enduring the stress of her relationship changes. Ms. Paredes continues to impress: she’s unafraid to make Savannah an unattractive teenager who is disruptive while deluding herself that she’s being helpful and supportive. Ms. Case plays a series of severe and conflicted characters without making them into villains. Mr. Sullivan brings a contrasting male energy to his portrayals.
As the two transgender characters, Ms. Levinson and Mr. Baeza are both revelations. They not only portray their characters’ struggles but also how each character attempts to bring stability to their relationships when their partners become unstable as individuals.
Most world premieres are works in progress, and changes, sometimes major changes, are yet to be made after the initial full-scale production concludes. This one comes fully-formed. There might be some trims here or there for scenes whose energy flagged briefly, but even if there weren’t I’d expect the work to attract additional successful productions.
As Diversionary’s Executive Artistic Director, Mr. Morrow has played on his connections in New York and elsewhere to bring interesting ideas and bold stories to his patrons. Ballast is yet another example of his string of successes. Diversionary has recently announced an upcoming season that features four West Coast premieres and one world premiere. If the season that Ballast concludes is any indication, San Diego audiences are in for many treats in the year ahead.
[box]Performs Thursdays at 7pm, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, and Sundays at 2pm through June 4. Allow time to park, as only street parking is available and parking can be difficult to find in the University Heights neighborhood where the theatre is located. This review is based on the press opening performance, May 13, 2017.