Friday, March 18, 2016

BOY: Well-Meaning Parents Raise Son As A Girl, With Serious Consequences, Indeed

Rebecca Rittenhouse, Bobby Steggert,
and Heidi Armbruster in BOY
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Can someone be forced to live a transgender life and not even know it? 

That is the remarkable question at the heart of the Keen Company’s production of Anna Ziegler’s Boy, now at the Clurman Theatre. Even more remarkable is the fact that the play draws on a true story (that of David Peter Reimer), in which the best of intentions of a loving family and a gifted, if misguided, doctor lead to a life of emotional trauma for the character at its center – born a boy (named Sam) but raised as a girl (called Samantha) after his penis was severed in a medical accident.

The story itself might well have been fodder for tabloid headlines or emotionally-charged confessional TV shows, so great credit must go to the playwright and to its outstanding cast for avoiding all of that. Boy strips itself of any weepy mawkishness and bores with honest intensity into the damaged soul of the character (a strikingly rich performance by Bobby Steggert) who, when we meet him, is in his 20s, is knowledgeable about his history and now calls himself Adam. 

Blame is not the central driver, although certainly culpability is important. The designated villain is the doctor (Paul Niebanck), called Wendell Barnes in the play.  A psychologist specializing in gender identity, Dr. Barnes not only advises Sam’s parents (Heidi Armbruster and Ted Köch) that it is in their son’s best interest to raise him as a girl, but he remains a trusted confidant for many years, especially as “Samantha” balks at the role into which she has been forced into (without any conscious knowledge that it is a role). The early years depicted in the play are in the 1960s, when the nature vs nurture debate was going strong and doctors were viewed as authoritative figures; Dr. Barnes is merely emblematic of that world view, as is his sway over Sam/Samantha’s family.   

When we first meet the grown Sam, now Adam, he is in the early stages of a relationship with Jenny (Rebecca Rittenhouse).  A casual flirtation at a Halloween party quickly blossoms into something more serious, but, while the attraction heats up emotionally, Adam pulls away from anything physical. Though Jenny is perplexed and frustrated, Adam is not prepared to have this conversation with Jenny or anyone else outside of his parents and Dr. Barnes.

The rest of the play, which alternates scenes between Samantha’s childhood and Adam’s young adult life, focuses on the character’s difficult struggle for self-identity, both when his history is being withheld from him and later, after he learns the truth. A confrontation with Dr. Barnes helps to set him free, but it is his desire to make things work with Jenny that leads to the beginnings of healing – at least, in the play.  (Sadly, the real David Peter Reimer ended his own life after battling depression for many years). 

The entire cast gives first-rate performances under Linsay Firman’s carefully focused direction. But it is Bobby Steggert who absolutely shines. Always a consummately honest actor, he tends to do his best work when he is presented with characters that allow him to find the perfect blend between intelligence and heart. Here he skillfully brings both Samantha and Adam into gut-wrenching reality for the audience, absolutely shining in what may be his meatiest role since he starred as the central character of a gay World War II soldier in Yank! 

Boy is not the first play to take on the question of gender identity and its place within the larger and more complex picture of transgender issues.  Dewey Moss’s Death of the Persian Prince (reviewed here), first presented last summer, tackles the very disturbing matter of gay men within the country of Iran being coerced into having gender reassignment surgery.  “Gay” and “transgender” are, of course, not synonymous, and there is much need for bringing an understanding into the light, even as the public’s awareness of what it means to be gay and lesbian has increased tremendously in the past couple of decades. Next up, we’ll be taking a look at the musical, Southern Comfort, that relates the story of small transgender community in rural Georgia. 

Feel free to share this blog with your friends, and to offer up your own theater stories by posting a comment. I also invite you to check out the new website Show-Score.Com, where you will find capsule reviews of current plays from Yours Truly and many other New York critics. 

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