Renaissance sculptor Michelangelo said of his work: "I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to the other eyes as mine see it."
Such is the harrowing struggle Christine Howey reveals in her remarkable one-woman show, Exact Change, now playing at Cleveland Public Theatre in the intimate James A. Levin Theatre. Written by Howey, and directed by veteran actor, teacher and director Scott Plate, Exact Change takes us inside the mind of a woman born inside a man's body.
With astonishing, visceral imagery and insight, Ms. Howey, actress and playwright, hews away at her human facade and personal privacy to reveal the terrifying, confusing, brutal and often hilarious musings of a trapped soul as seen through the eyes of a little girl, an adolescent, a mother masquerading as a father and a mature woman bitterly defeated by her awkward unfamiliar femininity.
With a clear and nuanced voice built for the theater, Howey powerfully, unashamedly and without an ounce of self-pity, rants and raves, laughs and coos, struts and bellows, satirizing her earlier masculinity, boldly sharing her pain. Named 'Dick' at birth, she winks at us as she wonders why her parents weren't content with a single mention of that body part, but had to give her two to contend with. She was, as she suggests, the girl with two dicks! Funny stuff.
Her story emerges, heartbreaking and deeply moving, from a tangled web of terror to confusion and final acceptance. We experience her desperation. We come to see her ultimate sex change operation as a great healing. She teaches us compassion with the gentlest of touches.
In a world where gender issues so enrage and confuse the ignorant, where transgender people are terrorized, murdered and even defaced in death, Howey stands before us with such vulnerability and unvarnished courage, our own aching humanity is soothed and touched.
The play is beautifully constructed and fascinating throughout. The humanity is tender to the touch. So tender, it gives you hints that there are some darker wounds spreading just beneath the surface, some of which I wished had been left unprotected by Ms. Howey's finesse. She has made the play tight and clean. As she continues to hone it, she can afford to pull back the dressing in a few of those places without any concern for sparing us the emotional blows. Within moments, we are her friends. We will embrace her without the slightest provocation.
This production brings together a team of tremendous artistic talent. Scott Plate has tempered and shaped the proceedings so that the juxtaposition of vignettes and narratives is constantly riveting. He coils the spring ever tighter, loosening it finally in a great exhalation of joy and hope.
He is joined by Laura Perotta as assistant director whose mastery as a theatre professional is clearly felt throughout the evening. Jeff Herman's set design uses Venetian blinds that obscure, trap, provide shadow play and shed jail-like bars across the stage helping Mr. Plate maintain the mystery and dark that lead to the hopeful conclusion.
Danny English provides a haunting score that winds itself around the action like a trembling vine of horns, piano and percussion. Ben Gantose' lighting moodily underscores the movement of character out of shadow and into the light, drawing us ever closer to the heart of the play.
And Esther M. Haberlen dresses Ms. Howey in an elegant, feminine pant suit with gold strand necklace that deeply enhances Howey's natural spunk and soulful beauty.
With this courageous and timely production of Exact Change, written, performed, directed and designed by northeast Ohio's regional talent, the Cleveland Public Theatre proves once again that it is a theatre of the people, giving voice to the silent pain in our society, transforming the minds and hearts of the region. In that, CPT is performing the most profound purpose of theatre.
Tom Fulton is a professional director, actor and teacher. He currently serves as Director of the Academy for the Performing Arts, a magnet school in Chagrin Falls.