The current trend towards transgender plays gets a heart-jolting spin by way of Anna Ziegler's Boy, another of her Ensemble Studio Theatre/Alfred P. Sloan-backed plays and now under Keen Company auspices at the Clurman. This time the unexpected close look at gender-bending that occurs--and is based on a true story--doesn't involve someone believing he or she was born in the wrong body.
To the contrary. The infant Samuel Turner was born with phirmosis--i. e., foreskin that could not be retracted over the glans. In the surgical procedure performed to correct the condition his penis was entirely destroyed. (It's unlikely that the versatile Nicole Kidman, who recently closed in the London production of Ziegler's Photograph 51, which originated at EST, will assume this role in any subsequent West End transfer.)
In Boy, Turner parents Trudy (Heidi Armbruster) and Doug (Ted Koch) act on the advice Dr. Wendell Barnes (Paul Niebanck). He suggests they raise the child as Samantha (Bobby Steggert). His nurture-overriding-nature argument comes with the suggestion that the child, unaware of the choice made for him, will undergo vagina-construction surgery in his/her early adolescence.
Though Dr. Barnes persists in his belief that nurture will prevail over nature--that's the contention Ziegler goes after critically in the script--Samantha, whose (unseen) twin brother Steven has a "normal" childhood, grows into adolescence wanting to behave as boys are supposed traditionally to do. For instance, "she" develops a fascination with cars that merely prompts the inflexible Barnes to label "her" a "tomboy."
Ziegler tells the tough story in two time-frames. One unfolding in Davenport, Iowa during 1968 and the years immediately following is Samuel/Samantha's progress from grade school to the teen years while developing more traits associated with boys than with girls, thereby confounding the nurture theory and despite Dr. Barnes's relentlessly maintaining that the child's resistance is merely a phase.
The second time-frame--Boston circa 1990--is when Samuel/Samantha has become a young adult and is living as a man calling himself Adam. His problem then is falling in love with unmarried Jenny Lafferty (Rebecca Rittenhouse), who has a son whom Adam also loves. Explaining why he doesn't follow through physically over a lengthy courtship is something he can't bring himself to do. Those awkward and painful demurrals underlie the ensuing complications.
Ziegler's play occasionally retains the feel of a case history, but for the most part--and while dealing Dr. Barnes (and by implications his sympathizers) a blow--the playwright presents Adam's situation with a high degree of pathos. Because spectators are aware of his difficulty being completely open with Jenny, Ziegler mines their sympathetic reactions to great dramatic effect.
The anguish suffered immediately after the botched operation and then straight through to the present--not only by Adam but also by his parents--provides Ziegler with material for any number of affecting sequences. Not the least is a father-son scene during which Doug--having elected to stand back while wife Trudy does much of the fighting on the young boy's behalf--confesses his decades-long suppressed feelings. In literary annals, there are myriad confrontations between fathers and sons, but it's likely there are none like this one, certainly not any more beautifully realized.
Another zinger scene is Adam confronting Dr. Barnes and forcing the man to accept the original plan's failure. (It would be interesting to hear psychologists respond to the validity of the Barnes approach and Ziegler's adamant 90 intermisssionless rejection of it.)
Linsay Firman directs Boy in complete rapport with the science and humanity built into the work. Firman sees that no one in the cast scants any of the requirements. Armbruster, Koch and Rittenhouse portray the confusion assailing their characters disconcertingly well, and Niebanck makes three-dimensional a figure who could easily come across as nothing more than a medical automaton.
Then there's Steggert, who's been accumulating a knock-out resumé over the last decade and more. One of the smartest decisions Firman and Steggert have made is avoiding any attempt to have Samantha talk like a child during the segments devoted to "her" disturbed and disturbing young years. Whereas such a choice could have been a deep pitfall, the one settled on allows Steggert to give a thoroughly remarkable performance, a performance up there with the best of the 2015-2016 season.
His accomplishment is taking on an unusually demanding role and bringing out its every subtlety. (Something of this caliber does emerge every so often. The last two appeared in Hand to God and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.)
In sum, Boy raises a cogent question and offers a highly compelling answer in a highly compelling manner.