It’s terrible when what ought to be a hypothetical thought experiment actually happens in real life. Such an event happened back in the 1960s when one infant boy in a set of twins suffered an unimaginably horrific medical accident, having his penis virtually destroyed during a medically prescribed circumcision. That boy, David Peter Reimer, was then handed off to Dr. John Money, who had a theory that gender identity was fungible, and that this boy could be taught to live as a girl.
It was an interesting theory that was soon proven totally wrong. And that is the basis for the play Boy by Anna Ziegler, now at None Too Fragile Theater. And while the 85-minute play is performed with remarkable specificity and nuance by the five-person cast, under the direction of Sean Derry, there are many gender rocks this work neglects to upturn.
That’s unfortunate, since the core story is certainly one that resonates powerfully these days. Transgender issues continually occupy the headlines, whether it’s POTUS trying to ban trans soldiers from the military or trans people being assaulted and murdered at ever-increasing rates. But in this case, the person at hand never wanted his gender altered. It was done because an honored member of the medical profession decided, in his own mind, that gender identity could be learned, and changed, at will.
In the play, we meet a 20-something young man named Adam who is having an awkward, quasi-romantic encounter with Jenny at a Halloween party. With Adam dressed as Frankenstein and Jenny (a funny yet vulnerable Natalie Green) decked out as a sexy bunny in fishnets and heels, they flirt with each other but it goes nowhere. From there, the play flips from one flashback to another as we see how Adam, born as Samuel and then reborn as Samantha for all his pre-teen years, finally found his way back to his true masculine gender.
The scenes between Samuel/Samantha and Dr. Barnes, the Dr. Money character, are particularly effective. The actor David Lenahan embodies the wriggling, squirming presence of young Samuel so well—even as he encouraged to act like a little lady by his therapist (inviting the boy to cross his legs demurely and read Jane Eyre). Sam is much more connected to Luke Skywalker. Contorting himself on his chair and rolling about on the floor as little boys are wont to do, Lenahan makes the drive to be oneself clearly visible.
As Dr. Barnes, Marc Moritz is calm and insistent in his pursuit of turning this boy into a girl, all to further his theory, Lurking in the background is also the practical consideration that it was (and still is) much easier to construct a functional vagina than it would be to fashion a working penis.
So as far as the doc is concerned, Samuel needs to be Samantha. This an opinion he shares with the parents, who seem bewildered but accepting, up to a point. As played by Pamela Harwood and Andrew Narten, it’s easy to empathize with their plight as they try to determine what is best for their child.
The playwright structures her piece in short scenes that hop around in time, and that can work against the impulse to dive deeper into some aspects of the characters. For example, we never see why Dr. Barnes is so insistent on forcing femininity, and even further surgery to create a vagina, on his very resistant patient. Is it all ego-driven, or is there a more humane impulse driving him.
More importantly, Sam’s disconnect with his doctor, his family and ultimately with himself is only touched upon, often in an almost clinical and fastidious manner. Living every day in the wrong gender is a particular kind of hell that one wouldn’t wish on their worst enemy, but Ziegler’s facile writing doesn’t allow the audience entry into that particular polar vortex of the soul.
Instead, we are left on the outside looking in, wondering how the relationship chairs will be arranged on the deck of this Titanic. Until Sam finally finds his voice and people are ready to listen, in his early teens, he is the ultimate stranger in a strange land.
Director Derry, as always, brings out evocative performances from his cast. But the overall effect would be tightened if each scene didn’t end in a blackout, some of which felt over-long. Sure, it’s easier to see the screen where the year of the next flashback happens, but it might have been more compelling just to see the actors move from scene to scene in the light.
The difficulty of knowing how to treat patients with intersex and other genital abnormalities is acknowledged. And even though its heart is in the right place, with Sam and Jenny finding each other at the end, it ain’t that easy. The real Sam, David Peter Reimer, tragically committed suicide at age 38.
Through February 17 at None Too Fragile Theater, 1835 Merriman Rd., Akron (enter through Pub Bricco), 330-962-5547, nonetoofragile.com.