Can a boy become a girl through sheer willpower?
"You can teach yourself almost anything, I think," says Adam, the protagonist in Anna Ziegler's Boy, with a slight catch in his voice. He's talking about auto repair, but the subtext practically reaches out of the earth and slaps us, letting us know that he means something more. It is an admittedly clunky way to introduce the central thematic conflict of nature versus nurture. Still, Boy (now receiving its world premiere from Keen Company at the Clurman Theatre) is the kind of play that unexpectedly grows on you. An indisputably fascinating subject certainly helps with that.
The story begins at a noisy house party in the late 1980s. Adam (Bobby Steggert) and Jenny (Rebecca Rittenhouse) are two twentysomethings seeking refuge in a quiet room, a place to chat and perhaps go further. There's only one problem: Adam spent the first decade of his life as "Samantha" and Jenny has no idea. The story flashes back and forth between adulthood and childhood, explaining how we got here. To be clear, Adam is not a trans man: He was born a boy, but a botched circumcision leads his parents, Trudy (Heidi Armbruster) and Doug (Ted Köch), to seek out the help of Dr. Wendell Barnes (Paul Neibanck). An expert in the field of gender identity, Barnes recommends they raise their son as their daughter, arguing that the necessary surgery would be far more successful in facilitating a normal sexual life than penile reconstruction. He offers to pay for the whole thing as it gives him an opportunity to test out his theory that we are all born blank slates, that gender is just a social construct (essentially, the opposite of the "born this way" mantra adopted by the modern LGBT movement). It's a theory that starts to unravel as Samantha increasingly begins to feel like a man.
As contrived as this plot sounds, it is based on a true story: In 1966, David Reimer was the victim of a circumcision gone wrong. Under the advice of Dr. John Money, his parents opted for gender reassignment surgery for their infant. While he had nothing but disdain for the way the doctor used him as a guinea pig, Reimer remarkably didn't hold any of this against his parents: "They did what they did out of kindness, love and desperation," Reimer told Rolling Stone in the 1997 interview that blew the lid off the story. "When you're desperate, you don't necessarily do all the right things."
Ziegler smartly uses this uncommon forgiveness as her guiding light. This is especially apparent in Armbruster's performance: She plasters on a brave face to soldier through a situation she never anticipated. Despite the fact that it was a negligent doctor who mutilated her son in the first place, she puts her trust completely in Dr. Barnes, smiling politely and doing everything he asks. We get the sense that she really wants this to work out.
So does Dr. Barnes, but (we suspect) for a different reason: This is his life's work and he wants to be proved right. Educated at elite institutions (one of his degrees is printed in Latin), he has a tendency toward paternalism. "To be honest, I'm not sure either of you pays her the kind of attention she needs," he condescendingly tells Trudy and Doug, shifting the blame when it becomes apparent that his experiment is a failure. This may be his life's work, but it's Adam's life. Niebanck delivers most of his lines in a fatherly tone that makes one want to punch him. Adam's actual father very nearly does.
As Doug, Köch embodies the quintessential working-class dad: He's visibly uncomfortable, but has unshakable solidarity with his kid. At one point Doug and Adam share a beer and the consistently heartbreaking Steggert lets out a crooked smile that tells us everything about their relationship. Even through tragic and uncomfortable passages, Steggert exhibits a fighter's spirit, ideal for a character who wants to will his way to some semblance of normalcy.
That normal life remains ever visible, but frustratingly out of reach in Linsay Firman's pointed production. A replica of Sandra Goldmark's sad 1980s rec room of a set hangs upside down over the stage, suggesting an inaccessible alternate universe. Rather than orchestrating a series of awkward quick-changes, Sydney Maresca costumes Adam in jeans and a T-shirt, letting us know that no matter what the other people onstage are calling him, he's always just Adam.
With uncommon empathy and startling insight, Boy gets to the heart of the conflict between medicine and science, in which the trial-and-error methods of the latter don't necessarily coincide with the Hippocratic mandate of the former. It's an important truth to keep in mind in this age when so few of us can afford a second opinion.