Chicago Theatre Review
A Career-Defining Performance
Boy – Timeline Theatre Company
The story may be told with simplicity, but the subject matter is involved, complicated and filled with pain and heartbreak. Based upon a real case, Anna Ziegler’s play about a young man struggling to regain his sexual identity is a 90-minute emotional roller coaster. It will be a hardhearted theatergoer who doesn’t empathize with at least one of the characters in this play: Sam/Samantha, his parents, his girlfriend Jenny or even Dr. Barnes. In Ziegler’s drama, science and research is pitted against survival, the human spirit and love.
Beautifully directed by Damon Kiely, with a steady hand, a keen eye and straightforward purpose, this talented cast presents this moving drama that’s based upon an actual event. It’s a story that’s both tragic and cathartic. In 1966, David, one of a pair of twin babies, is accidentally mutilated during a routine circumcision procedure. Not knowing how to deal with this horrific occurrence, Janet and Ron Reimer contacted Dr. John Money, the head of the gender clinic at Johns Hopkins. Urged by Dr. Money, the Reimers decided to allow multiple surgeries to be performed upon their son and to raise him as a girl.
Following an extremely difficult childhood and confusing puberty, David’s parents finally tell him the truth about his past. The young man then attempts to transition back to being male. However, the trauma had been so profound that David eventually committed suicide. When David Reimer’s story was eventually told, Dr. Money became discredited and disappeared from the public eye forever.
After Anna Ziegler read this sad account she was moved to write a play inspired by David Reimer’s story. Empathetic to the deep anguish the Reimers experienced while trying to handle this impossible situation, Ziegler chose to write a play about parenting. In “Boy,” she presents an average, blue collar couple simply trying to provide the best for their children. She later shifted the plot of her play from being about the doctor and his victim to focusing primarily on the young man.
In Ziegler’s play, Adam Turner is a young man. Although we never see him, Adam has a twin brother named Stephen. Adam was actually born Sam, but was raised as Samantha, after a botched medical procedure mutilated his genitals. Upon consulting Dr. Wendell Barnes, a well-known doctor and TV celebrity specializing in gender reassignment, Trudy and Doug Turner become convinced that raising their son as a daughter would be the best choice for everyone.
The play opens at a Halloween party, where 20-year-old Adam meets a pretty, but inebriated, young woman named Jenny Lafferty. It isn’t long before the two become romantically involved, with Adam showing a certain curious reluctance to take their relationship beyond a kiss. Jenny is a single mother and Adam shows a great deal of paternal interest in son, also unseen in this play. The drama flip-flops between 1968 and 1990, so the audience sees little Samantha grow up, as she relates to her mom and dad and Dr. Barnes, as a kind of loving, surrogate father.
As the years pass, we witness a smart, likable little girl who’s confused and uneasy with the gender she’s been forced to inhabit. Samantha never learns, until much later in her life, that she is actually a he. Samantha enjoys playing games preferred by little boys. Samantha reads books, watches TV and goes to movies, always wondering why she identifies with the male protagonists.
Bouncing around in time, certain key moments from Adam’s life stand out. In one instance, little Samantha lamentably confesses to Dr. Barnes that she loves him like a parent and wishes she could live with him, instead of just visiting during her appointments. Later, we find Adam and Jenny’s amorous interest in each other resulting in frustration and feelings of rejection. During another scene, after Adam has begun identifying as male, he brings Jenny home to meet his mom. Trudy assumes that her son has told his girlfriend about his past and lets certain information slip. Jenny runs out of the house, not knowing what is going on. And then there’s the poignant scene when Adam, who was raised all his life as a girl, confronts Dr. Barnes and tells him he’s not Samantha any longer and doesn’t want to see the doctor ever again.
The playwright has told Adam’s story with the perfect combination of sentiment and wisdom. Each and every scene is tightly constructed, economically portraying only what’s necessary. Ms. Ziegler is a skilled storyteller and her characters, especially Adam, all feel honest and real. Each is played with true transparency, never hiding his emotions, desires or points of view.
Theo Germaine delivers a heartfelt performance as Adam. They are as convincing playing preschool and thirteen-year-old Samantha as they are portraying Adam (his chosen name) in his mid-twenties. Theo, who’s already impressed audiences with their work at ATC, Writers and Steppenwolf Theatres, never resorts to exaggerated physicality or vocal gimmicks to portray Adam at the various stages of his life. Theo always finds the right note and perfect balance, conveying Adam’s awkward grace and hungry desperation to understand and cope with his unbelievable situation. This is truly Theo Germaine’s play and a defining moment in this talented young actor’s career.
Theo is ably supported by every other actor in this gifted cast. Mechelle Moe, whose directorial talents were enjoyed in TimeLine’s recent production of “In the Next Room,” is deeply affecting as Trudy Turner. Theatergoers will truly understand this perplexed mother’s fathomless bewilderment. The always brilliant Stef Tovar, who just warmed audiences’ hearts as the selfless Captain of “The Christmas Schooner” at Mercury Theater, creates Doug Turner. He plays Adam’s confused father with understandable guilt, slowly drowning in pain. These two performances both ground and enhance Germaine’s portrayal.
Emily Marso, whose strong, breakout performance in Silk Road Rising’s recent “Wild Boar,” shines here as Adam’s love interest, Jenny. Without giving way to histrionics or dishonest emotion, Ms. Marso is Theo Germaine’s equal as his on-again, off-again love. Once again bringing his solid and multifaceted character portrayal to the TimeLine stage, and seen in notable productions like “The Apple Family Plays” and “A Walk in the Woods,” David Parkes is terrific as Dr. Barnes. Portrayed as a professional man of science, Parkes also lets the audience see the man beneath the dapper three-piece suits. He’s a respected scientist who’s emotionally touched by the journey of little Samantha; and, although unwilling to admit it, his paternal side has been laid bare.
In Damon Kiely’s accomplished and heartfelt production of Anna Ziegler’s 2015 play, a nominee for the New York’s Outer Critics Circle Award, audiences will travel to a world many have never experienced. That’s the power of great theatre and, most certainly, of this wonderfully moving production. At each performance, theatergoers will step into the shoes of Adam Turner and come to understand a little of the anguish known to those undergoing gender transition and other sexual orientation issues. Theo Germaine’s performance is enlightening and career-defining in, perhaps, the greatest performance of their young career. This is quite likely the first must-see production of the new year.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented January 10-March 18 by TimeLine Theatre Company, 615 W. Wellington Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling 773-281-8463 x6 or by going to www.timelinetheatre.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.