By J.S. Alleva
It’s a rare privilege to venture behind the scenes of a dynamic new play and probe an actor’s personal and professional thoughts about the script. On February 1st, I previewed a final dress rehearsal of Steel River Playhouse’s production of BOY and spoke with the 5-member cast whose candor matched their collective talent. Written by award-winning American playwright Anna Ziegler and nominated for the 2016 John Gassner Award, BOY is a brilliant and moving exploration of what it is that makes us who we are. As a human race, we are neck-deep in the quagmire of finding ourselves, so this play could not be more important or better-timed. It’s a play about love: how we express it, how we find it, how we accept it, and sometimes, how we endure it. Running through February 18th, BOY is a gift to the community, and one too beautiful to miss.
The script is inspired by real events from the 1960’s, when parents of twin baby boys make a life-altering decision after one of the sons is tragically maimed. Desperate for their boy to lead a normal life, they find a doctor whose specialty is helping patients, both surgically and psychologically, with body/gender issues. The doctor’s recommendation is to raise the young boy as a girl, and thus begins a series of inner and outer struggles which shine a laser beam on the concepts of gender, identity, acceptance, and the transformative power of love.
The show begins in 1989 in Davenport, Iowa, at a Halloween party where a costumed young man named Adam meets up with Jenny, a former schoolmate who fails to recognize him for reasons we learn later. The scene then shifts to 1973 when the same young man ‘becomes’ a young girl in her doctor’s office. From here, we take a journey through the years, slowly learning who Adam really is and why.
The show is directed by Suki, whose brilliant work with actors has been showcased across the region. She has a gift for gleaning performances of authentic emotional depth, and this show is a powerful example. Her desire for the show is to reveal the themes of love, both parental and romantic, and body autonomy, and her hope for those who attend the show is this: “When someone is telling you who they are, listen and believe them. Say their name.”
Adam/Samantha Turner is played with professional agility and tenderness by Jeff Hunsicker whose dramatic range shifts from 23-year-old man to 6-year-old girl in one short breath. His courage and vulnerability in portraying this wide-ranging role is endearing, sometimes humorous, and ultimately breathtaking as his persona moves boldly from confused frustration to blazing empowerment.
Hunsicker shares these thoughts: “I’ve jokingly said that the hardest part in playing this role was pretending to know anything about cars… But obviously switching back and forth from a young girl to an adult man is tricky. The two main things were a) allowing Samantha to grow. A 6-year-old girl is very different from a 12-year-old, and I wanted her aging to be apparent. And then b) making sure that Samantha and Adam weren’t too different. Even though I’m dealing with drastically different ages and gender identities, they are the same person. It always surprises me how early we know something is wrong or off. Even at age 6, Samantha feels different from all the other girls. She knows that she has an attraction to girls even though her doctor and parents say she should like boys, which is a struggle to which a lot of LGBTQ youths would relate. I think the big takeaway from this story, is that forcing a person to behave or dress or feel a certain way is wrong. No matter what their biological makeup happens to be. Forcing a gay boy to “act straight” or not allowing a transgirl to wear a dress is just as torturous as the things Samantha had to go through.”
Carley Martone, as Jenny Lafferty (Adam’s girlfriend), brings an understated good humor and just the right amount of wariness to Jenny, the single mom suddenly showered with affection from an oddly friendly guy. Her natural attraction to Adam is warm and genuine. In our interview, Martone mentions that her biggest challenge was the first scene: “I’ve never been drunk and found it difficult to portray. But as someone who identifies as bisexual and has known since around age 5 or 6 that I had crushes on both girls and boys, I can relate to Samantha and how she knew very young that something wasn’t right. I absolutely think we know who we are as young children and I wish that people could understand that. My oldest son is more “feminine”, he enjoys My Little Pony and Barbie and Frozen. For the longest time he wanted to have “princess hair” and was growing it out. My younger son is very much “all boy”. He’s always loved Spider-Man and bugs and trucks. He loves rough housing and throwing balls. I don’t think it matters how you raise them; they will be who they are and like what they like. And as parents we should respect them and love them for the individuals they are.”
Andrea Cronin plays Adam’s mother Trudy with an earnest and hopeful determination, a hallmark of mothers who want the best for their children, even when they allow themselves to follow outside authority against their better judgement. Says Cronin, “The hardest part for me was getting to the heart of Trudy and Doug’s relationship. They could so easily be played as a nagging couple. But, to live through what they did and still love each other at the end…they had to have a strong foundation. Once I latched onto that, everything was clear. It was very important to show some tenderness between them in their younger scenes. As for the show’s themes…I was not surprised…you are who you are. It was just another confirmation for me. I see it in my own 4-year-old daughter when she tells me that she wants a boy to love her someday. Seriously, how can you ignore that? No one ever told her that girls love boys and boys love girls.”
Adam’s father, Doug Turner, is played beautifully by Eric Jarrell. The relationship between Doug and Trudy captures the deep healing power of a parent’s love. It is one of the most touching aspects of the play. And while Doug may be less schooled, he ultimately shows the greatest wisdom. Jarrell’s performance brings this home with the subtlety of a ‘man of few words’ speaking volumes. Jarrell shares, “In such a compact play, with limited scenes over a long period of time, it’s a challenge to show a character’s progression. Did they grow or change? Did they gain new insights? I needed to make clear choices for each scene to support the text. Part of Doug’s journey is recognizing the strength of spirit it takes to fight for what we want and be who we are. I don’t see the show as a study in gender identity as much as a journey to self-discovery while fighting against the trainings and expectations of family and society. Other people want us to be so many things that may not fit with our true nature, and how you respond to that and work through it ultimately defines how closely you can get back to what you were born to be. Part of Doug’s journey is not beating himself up for past weaknesses in his inability to stand up for who he is.”
Tom Tansey portrays Dr. Wendell Barnes with powerful conviction, along with the bright-eyed energy of an intellectual excited to share his work. In Samantha, Wendell finds a willing pupil, a comrade, and a fellow book enthusiast. Her precociousness seems like a validation, and Tansey’s performance is deeply touching in this regard. He has clearly experienced the awkwardness of feeling different, and very humanly, he surmises that Samantha’s struggle will be as easily surmountable as his own. But as Tansey shared in our interview, “More harm has been done in the world by people who were certain they were right than people who knew they were wrong. Wendell was sure he was right, and whether that justifies the actions… As the actor, I have to believe that. As far as the bigger picture… I don’t know. My biggest challenge in playing Wendell has been finding the person behind the academic. It was up to me to find an emotional base for a man who seems to have distanced himself from himself. And that process helped me begin to see how someone could feel so right about doing something so wrong. I’ve been surprised at how much the play has made me consider who I am and how I came to be the person I am today. How much of what I believe about myself is based on my authentic identity; how much is based on external structures and expectations? I’d like to think it’s more the former than the latter… but this experience makes me wonder.”
In lesser hands, the play’s format could have been confusing with multiple time and gender jumps between 1968-1990. Yet this ensemble cast keeps the show balanced and centered, each performer holding space for their character firmly yet tenderly, carrying the audience safely forward through the volatile journey of BOY.
With Scenic Design by Chris Waters, the set acts as a physical model of the divided persona of Adam/Samantha as well as the societal templates which limit us even today. The stage is split in half, with two almost-identical rooms separated by a central door. Each room has a backwall of bookshelves, mirroring each other in shape and form. But the similarity ends there. On the left we have white shelves, filled with a small array of books, framed pictures, white glass vases and plates. The pastel upholstery and decor feel traditionally feminine. This room acts as the boy’s family home as well as his girlfriend Jenny’s apartment.
On the right side of the stage we have the contrast of classically masculine decor: dark wooden shelves heavy with leather-bound books, a black leather couch and a burgundy chair. This is the doctor’s Boston office. Though identical in shape and layout to the left room, it is ‘dressed’ differently, and brings into question what truly shapes our identities: is it the structure (of our bodies), the way we feel inside, or the way we decorate ourselves?’ The two sides of the stage appear identical in shape, until you notice that a portion of the left stage floor has been removed, representing perhaps the ‘removed’ portion of the boy and the feminine role forced upon him.
Costume Design by Deborah Young is period appropriate, with 60’s dresses and cardigans shifting into 80s leggings and bright colorful plaids. The doctor’s garb is a ‘classic’ that never changes—a tweed jacket and slacks which show scholarly authority. The Halloween costumes are clever and playful and show both humor (Jenny as Clark Kent) and self-awareness (Adam as Frankenstein’s Monster).
With Light & Sound Design by Jeff Chernesky, Stage Management by Meghan Geary, and Props by MJ Stone, the play runs seamlessly. Above the door is a small transom-like projection screen which communicates the year and relevant notes (e.g. “Samantha is 7”), guiding the audience back and forth through the decades. The show opens with the piped-in sound of a late-80s party scene which could be louder to justify the ‘party deafness’ of Adam and Jenny as they enter the room. Minimal set changes allow the movement of time, age and gender to flow unhindered, crucial to the telling of this touching, life-affirming and ultimately liberating tale.
Plays this deep and raw can sometimes leave the audience emotionally drained, yet Steel River’s performance feels like a caress. Through all the anguish, gender confusion and developmental trauma, there is a powerful underlying current of compassion which is palpable. It opens the heart and feels utterly safe. What could be more fitting for a show about accepting one another just as we are… and even more, as we choose to be seen. As Director Suki shares in her program notes, “…we cannot tell someone else who, or how, to be – we can only accept them and love them for who they truly are.”
Remaining show dates include: Feb 4, 9, 10, 11, 15, 16, 17, 18 at 8pm, and Feb 10 at 2pm
This play is performed without intermission, and is approximately 80 minutes long. Bathrooms are available downstairs, and an elevator is available. Warning: there are a few moments of sexually explicit language which are integral to the play’s theme.
For more info on this run of BOY, contact:
Steel River Playhouse
245 E High St, Pottstown, PA 19464