Review by Naomi Cardwell.
All plays staged at the Butterfly Club begin with a sense of adventure. At the end of a nondescript Melbourne alleyway, an open doorway beckons. Inside, a series of steep flights of stairs disorientingly twist and turn back on themselves then suddenly resolve into a bright, cosy bar crammed with twinkling fairy lights and walls upon walls of knick-knacks and oddities. This writer urges adventurers to come early and linger a little while sampling excellent cocktails, if only to catch your breath before the next two steep staircases ahead! We find our seats as Imogen Heap’s breathless Wait It Out plays under the chatter, and the atmosphere is cosy and companionable in the brightly painted theatre: fitting for the highest room of the tallest tower.
A Southern Fairy Tale begins as writer and solo performer Ty Autry approaches the stage from the rear of the room, his back to the audience, and breathes his opening line with reverence. It’s as though we are at church, where the minister pays his first respects to the alter and the cross before addressing his waiting flock. But in place of a Bible sits Autry’s beaten-up notebook, and the stage is strewn with crumpled drafts and rejected pages, the image of jittery self-doubt an inversion of the absent Bible’s unyielding authority.
It’s surprising and delightful to realise just how funny Autry’s material is, even as his chronology of a crushing adolescence as a gay Christian unfolds in a repressive small-town setting in America’s Deep South. His narration of years of infuriating, torturous conversion therapy - psychological warfare waged by adults against a child desperate to simply please them - is disturbing and difficult at times. The first f-word slur hits the audience like a bullet to the chest, and yet a few minutes later giggles suffuse the space as Autry capably balances his difficult subject matter with warmth and humour, strutting and winking outrageously as he represents a coterie of flawed and funny characters all bent on saving his soul by breaking it to fit their mould.
Skilfully weaving between a sympathetic portrayal of various well-meaning do-gooders and the odd small-town sociopath, Autry’s writing and performance are complex, well-developed and deeply funny, never supplying easy answers or two-dimensional outrage. Particularly impressive is his calm and even forgiving exploration of the wontonly corrupt parochial system’s capacity to hoard power into the hands of a few white men, who simultaneously expel and excommunicate the teen while also gaslighting him in subsequent therapy.
While Autry is a touring American actor, and his play is replete with Americanisms, the poignant local relevance speaks for itself. The audacity of a church which presumes to stand between a person, their community, and their faith rankles just as hard here in Australia, with our own Anglican Church having painfully split apart in 2022 over the right of gay churchgoers to the sacraments of marriage and communion.
There are many aspects to praise about this hour-long play - from details like the fabulous succession of nostalgic flip phones as Autry’s character grows up, to his agonised on-stage revisions of the script as he scribbles and second-guesses, fearing the art of lying he perfected to survive might somehow infect his storytelling. David L. Carson’s direction is at once delicate and powerful, taking up the metaphor of the Little Mermaid’s stolen song to devastatingly voice Autry’s father and minister’s admonitions through him as he fixes woodenly onto the middle distance or squints directly into the unrelenting light above. In this fairy tale, the church is a many-headed monster, roiling and morphing against the protagonist to keep him from the relationship he craves with his God and his community.
If this play is Autry’s personal testimony, consider me converted. As the audience files out, the actor joins us in the bar downstairs to generously trade stories, listen, and offer a hug here and there. Watching clumps of people who arrived as strangers cosily debriefing over a drink induces a shuddering pang of nostalgia. As our own Australian church recklessly tears itself apart to divide its own congregation, gone for many of us are those long hours after Sunday services, clutching plastic cups of watered-down cordial while the adults chatted interminably over milky instant coffee and Arnott’s Assorted Creams. Ty Autry is to be commended for his mettle and for his radical hope that the church might yet recover in itself a love which manages to practice patience, kindness, goodness and faithfulness to its people.