By Sandi Durell
It’s all upside down! A mirror image! That’s Sandra Goldmark’s set design, a challenging give-a-way in Anna Ziegler’s Boy, produced by Keen Company and Ensemble Studio Theatre. A living room space, an office – and hanging above it, upside down, the same set.
Boy is the story inspired by the “John/Joan” case; when psychologist/sexologist John Money introduced the idea of biological sex vs. gender, prompting extensive research and establishing the Johns Hopkins Gender Identity Clinic in 1965.
The Boy is played by a well-nuanced and sensitive Bobby Steggert, a twin who was severely injured when circumcised as a baby and basically lost his penis. His grieving parents learning of the research put themselves in the good Doctor’s hands, who advises them to raise their son as a female.
Paul Niebanck plays Dr. Wendell Barnes, the stoic and caring psychologist who follows his theory of genital appearance as the determining power in sexual reassignment. So long as the Boy can fit the Doctor’s prototype and aid his research, he is more than pleased as we encounter their growing bonding.
As the scenes bounce back and forth in an array of flashbacks, from 1968 thru 1990, the Boy, known as Samantha, is seen in frequent meetings with Dr. Barnes as he reinforces and strengthens gender identity beginning early, seemingly moving along fine for Samantha, as a first grader, with the stress on dolls and all things girlie, but not having much luck in making friends. All the while Sam is taking hormones and has undergone several surgeries as the years pass. Home life is tenuous as Mom goes overboard following the Doctor’s instructions, a sense of annoyance more evident with Mr. Turner, the father.
Flash forward and a young man named Adam is mutually attracted to Jenny (Rebecca Rittenhouse) at a Halloween party, a confused young mother of a 4 year old son. He asks her out, and begins to feel very fatherly toward her son (whom we don’t see).
The quick scene changes move back and forth between Samantha’s visits with Dr. Barnes, as a growing disillusionment grows in the Boy’s mind and body; confusion and guilt mounting for the parents – a denying Trudy Turner as the mother (Heidi Armbruster) and a rather simplistic father, Doug Turner (Ted Koch) as they become more disenchanted with Dr. Barnes’ methods witnessing the Boy they call Samantha eventually disappearing and re-emerging as Adam.
Adam cannot deny his sexual feelings for Jenny as they begin to fall in love; but he is also unable to tell her the truth. She isn’t sure if he’s gay or just not that sexually interested. What ensues is a mixture of heartbreak and heart-warming emotions and encounters as the relationship comes to its natural conclusions.
Boy is an important play calling into focus research that suggested that core gender identity becomes fully formed by age 3, which was then challenged by Dr. Money who debated a new paradigm “nature/crucial period/nurture” and stating that “all the human race” are “psychosexually neutral or undifferentiated at birth.” If, in fact there is psychosexual differentiation, he postulated that it derived from genital body appearance.
When the real Boy in question, David Peter Reimer, was tracked down after undergoing several surgeries to reinstate his male identity and reconstruct his genitals, the story was used to dissuade physicians from treating infants in this manner. The surgery is only performed on those who choose to have it so their sexual identity reflects their gender identity.
The play is directed by Linsay Firman who diligently moves the quick scenes forward and back. Astute lighting is by Nick Francone. Would we like to know more details? Yes. But 90 minutes doesn’t leave much time to delve deeper. So, at times, the feeling is that of an academic lesson in gender identity. But 90 minutes is worth your time to see Steggert’s fine performance as he ebbs and flows between his characters.
Boy – Clurman Theatre, Theatre Row West 42nd Street – thru April 9 Photos: Carol Rosegg