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'Aunt Jack' goes deep into sexual identity at Empire Stage

“Aunt Jack” has some seriously funny lines and some surprisingly touching moments, both of which sneak up on you.

The tragicomedy getting a world premiere at Fort Lauderdale’s Empire Stage is a wickedly witty swipe at sexual identity and gender politics. Or maybe it’s gender identity and sexual politics. If the alphabet soup of LGBTQIA is a bit of a jumble for you, then you just may find some steady ground in S.P. Monahan’s script.

The gender-bending play is about an unconventional family, firmly placed in the 21st century. Norman Sable-Church breaks up with his longtime boyfriend Ian Miller and moves across the country to San Francisco, far away from his fathers, George Church and Jack Sable in New York. Months later, with a new partner named Andy, Norman returns because George, a prominent gay activist and historian, is in poor health. Jack, who is also a well-known drag queen — hence the title — and Phyllis Judson, Norman’s biological mother and a lesbian, are simultaneously disappointed with Andy and the way their son Norman turned out.

I know. It’s a lot. Feel free to go back and read that paragraph again, slowly. That virtual family tree/Venn diagram you just mind-mapped is nothing compared to the nifty little twists and turns “Aunt Jack” keeps popping up with for the better part of two hours, including a 15-minute intermission. On some level, that is what the show is about, with everyone trying to figure out what piece of the puzzle they represent and how they fit in with the others.

Although fun and engaging with just the right mix of campy mugging and heart-tugging, it almost gets away from the cast. This is evident late in the needs-to-be-tightened second act when Monahan and director Michael Bush struggle, just a tad mind you, to get all the various ideas from the page to the stage without a sense of labored effort. “Aunt Jack” at its best is not some academic treatise more interested in debate than character. There is hot blood running through the arguments.

So it is even more necessary for the actors to hold their characters firmly in focus in order to carry that off. In the intimate black-box space of Empire Stage, where the cast has to squeeze past some of the furniture on the set, the audience is right there. You can see fear in their eyes, and that will never do, because the various spinning plates of “Aunt Jack” call for supreme confidence.

“Aunt Jack” runs through Aug. 12 at Empire Stage, 1140 N. Flagler Drive, in Fort Lauderdale. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and 5 p.m. Sundays. Tickets cost $35. To order, call 954-678-1496 or go to EmpireStage.com.

rhagwood@southflorida.com

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