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Boy - Elizabeth Ahlfors

Rebecca Rittenhouse and Bobby Steggert
Photo: Carol Rosegg

Why are we the way we are? In a world premiere at the Clurman Theater, Anna Ziegler's new play, Boy, simmers with haunting sensitivity as it delves into traumas of gender identity. There are some who still debate nature versus nurture, signifying nature as biological inheritance and nurture dealing with external experiences and learning. Most people, however, have moved beyond the extremes, which were still the norm in the 1960's.

The '60's was the era of Canadian David Reimer, whose true story inspired the play. Boy examines Adam Turner's fierce trust in his doctor, his search for self-identity, and his confusions about love, all of which were affected by decisions made by other people when he was an infant. Whether these decisions were well-meant choices gone awry or unethical methodology is beside the point. Boy is concerned with how to survive an immutable situation.

Trudy and Doug Turner, an Iowa couple, took their eight-month-old twins, Stephen and Samuel, to be circumcised. Tragically, the doctor used cauterization that burned Samuel's penis beyond repair. His parents, of course, were distraught and desperate.

In 1968, after watching Dr. Wendell Barnes on 60 Minutes discussing sexual reassignment surgery, they contact him for advice. Dr. Barnes urges them to raise the baby as a female despite the inevitable surgeries, hormones, and years of therapy. Since Dr. Barnes's theorized that nurture trumps nature in gender roles, he stresses that they must never to tell the transgendered child that "she" was born a boy.

After a first surgery, the child becomes "Samantha," is treated as a little girl and in 1973 begins meeting regularly with Dr. Barnes. She learns to be feminine, sitting a certain way and playing with dolls, but as the years pass, Samantha shows increasing irritability and unhappiness. She does not make friends easily and reads books only after being coaxed by Dr. Barnes. At home, her father (Ted Koch) does not interact much with her and at one point he tells the doctor that Samantha recently "shaved" her face with a clean razor blade. A doting but distressed mother, Trudy, played by Heidi Armbruster, mentions that her daughter had a tea party with a friend, drinking cleaning liquids from under the sink but Trudy sloughs off this behavior as childish antics.

Unfortunately, Ziegler skips through Samantha's adolescence, a regrettable gap. When she is 15, Trudy and Doug admit the decision they made years ago was horribly wrong. In a heartrending segment, Doug takes his daughter out for ice cream and tells her the story of the infant's castration. Adam later admits, "that was the moment I was born." There is no indication, however, of the anguish and fear the teenager must have felt at the time.

The top of the play is set in 1990, when Adam, now in his 20's, shy and reserved, meets and falls in love with Jenny. With flashes of light and projections stating the year, the play flashes back to Dr. Barnes office and the little girl, Samantha. Director Linsey Firman paces the play smoothly back and forth, filling out the story to explain why Adam, who falls in love with Jenny, is sexually unable to consummate the relationship. Played by Rebecca Rittenhouse, Jenny is young and cheerful but not afraid to stand up for herself and brave enough to face consequences.

On Sandra Goldmark's stark sets, director Linsey Firman leads a rich and nuanced cast. What brings intensity to Boy is Bobby Seggert's layered and incandescent portrayal as both Samantha and Adam, without use of costume or prop changes. His every move is essential, evoking empathy for this heartbreaking situation and making it impossible to view Dr. Barnes (Paul Niebanck) and his experimental gender manipulations with anything but horror.

In this production from the Keen Company and the Ensemble Studio Theater, Anna Ziegler's Boy navigates a delicate journey for self-identity, realizing there is no easy way to unravel the varying influences of biology and culture on human behavior.

Keen Company and Ensemble Studio Theatre
410 West 42th Street
Previews: Feb. 23. Opens Mar. 10. Closes April 9.
90 min. No intermission
Playwright: Anna Ziegler
Director: Zinsey Firman
Review by Elizabeth Ahlfors