The only thing missing from none too fragile’s ‘Boy’ is a good play
By Bob Abelman
Male circumcision among newborns is an ancient ritual for Jews and Muslims that has become a wide-spread public health measure in the U.S., Britain and other nations regardless of religion or culture.
So common is this practice since World War II that little attention is paid to the surgical procedure until something goes terribly awry and a play is written about it.
Anna Ziegler’s 85-minute “Boy,” on stage at none too fragile, is based on the life of David Reimer who, in 1965 at 8 months of age, became the unwitting subject of sex reassignment surgery, hormone treatment and psychological therapy after his penis was all but obliterated during a botched circumcision. On the advice of a renowned sex researcher at Johns Hopkins University, David was raised by his parents as a girl.
It didn’t take.
Reimer’s tragic tale has been told, most famously, in John Colapinto’s pseudonym-dependent Rolling Stone magazine exposé and, later, in his highly detailed book “As Nature Made Him,” which dispenses with the anonymity. There has also been a documentary that aired on PBS and the BBC, filled with extreme close-up interviews and overly dramatic reenactment footage.
Ziegler’s play, written and first staged in 2016, fictionalizes Reimer’s life story – he is called Sam before the surgery and Samantha after – and dramatizes the debate over the social and biological determinants of gender, focusing heavily on the young man’s excruciating struggle to find his true identity.
While the story is intriguing, the debate is thought-provoking and the main character’s struggle is gut-wrenching, the play is none of these.
Ziegler seems so determined not to exploit or sensationalize actual events that she has written an overly cautious, antiseptic and tepid piece of theater.
The play is written as a series of short scenes between Samantha (David Lenahan, without the use of a dress or wig), his parents Trudy and Doug (Pamela Harwood and Andrew Narten), his therapist Dr. Wendell Barnes (Marc Moritz) and his later love interest Jenny (Natalie Green) that bounce back and forth between the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.
None of these scenes linger long enough for the characters or the audience to absorb the enormity of what is happening, ponder its meaning, and react before moving on to the next.
None dig deep enough to excavate the human drama, offering instead understated indicators of an atrocity without revealing much about it.
There’s a brief scene where a young Samantha plays chess with Dr. Wendell Barnes that attempts but doesn’t come close to capturing the harrowing psycho-anatomical game the therapist has been playing with this boy’s life.
The father’s cooler filled with Budweiser and the mother’s incessant rambling merely hint at his alcoholism and her clinical depression from the extended struggle to maintain the farce of raising a son as a daughter.
There’s a fleeting reference to children playing with toxic chemicals that goes nowhere.
Director Sean Derry and his talented actors do their very best to find what lies between the lines of dialogue in this script.
They work hard at stripping away the play’s whitewashing of emotion and attempt to bridge the psychological distance between these characters and the audience by shortening the physical distance during the production.
Everyone tries desperately to humanize characters who, on the page, come across as the puppets child abuse therapists employ to help reduce the trauma of pointing to where it hurts.
But the harder the actors try, the more apparent the shortcomings of this play.
WHERE: none too fragile, 1835 Merriman Road, Akron
WHEN: Through Feb. 17
TICKETS & INFO: $25, call 330-962-5547 or visit nonetoofragile.com
Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3. 2017 AP Ohio Media Editors best columnist.
Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on February 5, 2018.
Lead image: Marc Moritz (left) and David Lenahan. Photo / Brian Kenneth Armour