A Star in Reborn, Again

Former Houstonian Charles Kathryn McGuire has been a millionaire, a transvestite, a socialite, a political candidate and a woman. Now, with son James's first play on stage in New York City, she's Daddy Kathryn.

"That's why I think theater is so important. Because you can separate that. Even though it does seem to mirror real life, it's always a work of art. There's always a difference between that and your real existence of paying the rent.

"I don't think Dad separated those two things, and I think that's why he had the sex-change operation. He tried to incorporate that stage thing into his real life, and it's never going to work. And that's what he's still trying to figure out. 'Can I make this work?' And he realized, 'no, I can't. I've got to start completely over and become a woman.' "

And does James see Kathryn as successful in her quest to become just a normal woman living a normal life in Jersey?

"Not yet. I don't know if she ever will be. I think it would have to be society that would have to change."

It's opening night.The place is called HERE, a performance art space/gallery/cafe straddling the border between TriBeCa and SoHo. Kathryn wears a red dress with black collars at the wrists and neckline, translucent hose, a diamond bracelet and three-inch heels. The outfit is simultaneously sensible and glamorous, and Kathryn is clearly the star of the party.

James and the other actors are preparing in a room behind the 70-seat black box theater. Director Janet Bogardus is doing a director's preshow job, denying assorted photographers access to the actors, protecting their preshow "head space."

One photographer asks if he can get just one shot, of James and Kathryn together, before the show.

"Oh, no, it wouldn't be good at all for James to see his father before the show."

In the cafe, a relatively obvious transvestite, also decked out in red, corners Kathryn and says he's just there to "make sure we don't give TVs a bad name."

The BBC crew mills about with boom mikes and cameras and release forms to be signed by anyone who might wander into the viewfinder.

Inside the black box, without fanfare or even introduction, the lights go down and the strains of "Waltz Across Texas" fill the room, and Daddy Kathryn proceeds.

The play is an interspersion of James's monologue and dramatic sketches illustrating high points of the well-worn story. Some dialogue is pulled directly from old Houston media coverage. Some is already familiar from the anecdotal archive that both James and Kathryn plunder in their individual interviews.

Kathryn, aware of being watched, smiles big smiles throughout, and never bigger than during the most potentially painful material: his daughter's disdain, James's successful stabs at humor at Kathryn's expense.

James's sister: "What's he look like? Does he really look like a woman?"
James: "He looks like a younger, big-handed, big-footed version of Grandmother McGuire."

There's a scene in which James brings home a boyfriend from college, and an onstage make-out session in which James is stripped to his briefs, before Robert English, playing Kathryn, comes home early and interrupts. Kathryn smiles through this scene, too, but the smile emerges through the tight lips of a suppressed grimace.

James recites a bit about how Kathryn tells "the same stories, over and over." The genuine smile returns.

The stage Kathryn is made to say, "I just want to have a normal life," and the audience erupts in laughter at the unlikelihood of this.

Mother McGuire is presented as a spooky, Hail Mary-saying, rosary-clutching religious freak. James had said that he asked her not to come because he was afraid the language might offend her.

James's sister, who is given a pseudonym in the script, is presented as an uncomprehending shrew. James had said she was simply too busy to come.

There's even a bit, set in Atlantic City, in which Kathryn keeps company with an Alzheimer's-stricken boyfriend.

When it's over, and James and company have taken their bows, the photographers rush in to do their work. A freelancer kneels near the footlights and documents the meeting of the real Kathryn McGuire and the still-wigged actor who just portrayed both him and her. On the bleachers in back, the BBC videographer documents the still photographer documenting the meeting of the real Kathryn McGuire and the wigged actor.

A man from the BBC asks Kathryn what she thinks of the play.
"Man," Kathryn replies, "that Daddy Kathryn was good."
She seems back in her element, at least back in one of her elements, enjoying the spotlight, rewarding the attention. She and James stand at the center of separate celebratory circles, holding their own inextricably intertwined courts.

It does not go unmentioned that this play, this retelling, might well drive Kathryn from the comfortable Jersey nest she has been padding these past three years. The publicity is bound to trickle down to Kathryn's community. Perhaps to her boyfriend. If it does?

"Well," says Kathryn, "I'll just go do it again someplace else. Wouldn't you sacrifice that for your son? To me it's just no choice. It's like I told him: I really don't want to do these interviews, but if it'll help the play, I'll do them."

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