Elise Forier Edie’s The Pink Unicorn at off the WALL invites us into the home of a woman named Trish. The stage is a cozy southern kitchen, modestly furnished with a Martha Stewart-ian color palette and sensible, inoffensive decorations. We are unsurprised to hear Stampede, a local country band, setting the mood.
Trish enters. She’d like to tell us a story about her daughter; specifically, the story of her daughter’s coming out. After an opening scene of down-home hospitality delivered in a classic southern drawl, we are unsurprised to find that Trish is less than comfortable with her daughter’s proclamation of identity.
The reason we are unsurprised is that we have some preconceived notions about Trish, about her cultural identity, and by extension how she might feel about others. When her daughter, Joline, a passionate 14-year-old high school student who owns a Tarantula named Beetlejuice and dresses “militantly” in black, comes out of the closet, we have a pretty good idea of how Trish is going to feel.
The Pink Unicorn, a one woman show directed by Ingrid Sonnichsen, is about a woman comfortable in her straight white womanhood stumbling into the leadership of a pro-LGBTQ social justice movement after an anti-gay celebration breaks out at her church. Forced to choose between her daughter and the pre-defined social mores of the world around her, Trish does her best to stand up for what she doesn’t understand and barely believes in.
This is a pointed play; or, rather, a very definite point taking the shape of a play, an anecdotal essay written as a one woman show. The Pink Unicorn’s intended audience and the thesis of its persuasive argument are far from obscure, which makes its supporting points an object of fascination for me.
This is a play about gay rights from the perspective of a straight, “traditional” woman who is open enough to dodge the label of closed-minded, and it is entirely her experience we are concerned with, not the voices of the oppressed. I found myself waxing and waning in regards to Trish, and I say that to the play’s credit. When confronted with her daughter’s identity, her immediate instinct is not of joy or fear, but violence. “I wanted to beat her until she started acting right, I really did,” she says. Trish is no ideal ally, but she is also vulnerable and honest, which is made apparent thanks to Edie’s careful, occasionally blunt prose.
Yet, the play doesn’t put Trish into a box. There is a particularly beautiful moment in the play in which Trish, in an attempt to intellectualize her daughter’s experience, comes up with a time when she didn’t feel gendered.
“There was a time in my life where if you had asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would’ve told you a big brother,” she says. “I remember feeling so strong, watching my arm muscles bunch when I climbed a tree, and shucking off my shirt in the middle of a hot summer day…and a kind of go-to-hell freedom I felt when I took off that label girl and put on that label big brother.”
It’s this moment, as well as her palpable love and acceptance of her daughter, that leads us to believe her when Trish begins collaborating with the ACLU to protest an instance of discrimination at Joline’s school.
Amy Landis plays Trish with a sensible straightforwardness befitting the character, and I was impressed with the humanity she unearthed in the play’s most divisive moments. It is thanks to this performance, often brimming with parental love, that will leave audience members on either side of this struggle sitting comfortably in their seats throughout the story – though a few may still shift uncomfortably now and then.
If it is clear that Trish, although largely born out of a stereotype of the likable everywoman confused by gender fluidity, cannot be reduced to her stereotype, it is less clear if the characters in her story can be afforded the same consideration. There is a woman at Trish’s church who spurs on the school protest, but according to Trish, this woman is really just a series of fat jokes on human legs. And Trish’s voice deepens an octave when speaking as her, her voice hoarse and out of breath for comedic effect.
Moments like these aren’t exactly few and far between. What we know about many of the LGBTQ characters of the play is, basically, that they walk around bein’ gay. Even Trish’s daughter is a kind of mystery. Yes, we are told Joline is scrappy and stands up for everyone else and wears black and shaves her head. But these are implications of a personality. As it stands, she’s a perfect imagistic vessel for an LGBTQ hero, but whatever else she is remains unexamined.
It’s this reliance on stereotypes that remove the play from the people it intends to defend. While we may cheer on Trish at her valiant attempts at inclusion, the fact of the matter is that in the real world not everyone oppressed has a Trish. The reality for many in the LGBTQ community is that they did not have a parental figure who spent hours on Wikipedia learning about gender fluidity and who recalled a time when they were open to a non-binary view of self.
Still, The Pink Unicorn doesn’t seem to directly address people who identify with Trish’s daughter. It instead is interested in speaking to people who feel the exact opposite. As a tool for cultural reform, I can see the legitimacy of this play as a conversation starter between a child and their parent who are about to, or have had, the “big talk,” or for a couple anxious theater-goers unprepared to come to terms with a world that’s changing faster than ever.
I would also be remiss to not repeat that there are moments of beauty here. Trish is a character with some big thoughts, and the tension between her instincts as a loving mother and as a social conservative are well illustrated. At its best, the play feels like a warm escape, but its broad characterization and uncomplicated narrative may hold it back from being the bridge-making unifier it clearly intends to be.
The Pink Unicorn at Carnegie Stage has unfortunately closed but you can catch it again starting May 18th. For tickets and more information, click here.
Special thanks to off the WALL for complimentary press tickets.