Where: TimeLine Theatre Company, 615 W. Wellington Ave.
When: through March 18
Phone: 773-281-8463 ext. 6
By ANNE SPISELMAN
The most interesting thing about the “Boy,” which is enjoying a deftly staged and well-acted Chicago premiere at TimeLine Theatre Company, is that playwright Anna Ziegler turns a horrifying true story with a tragic ending into a hopeful play with a happy finale.
The real case involved Canadian David Reimer, who was born in 1965 and originally named Bruce. When he and his identical twin brother, Brian, were circumcised at eight months old, his operation was horribly botched, destroying his penis. After seeing Dr. John Money on tv in early 1967 talking about the Gender Identity Clinic he co-founded at Johns Hopkins, the then eighteen-month old’s parents wrote to him, concerned about their son’s future happiness. The doctor, believing that gender identity is a matter of social conditioning and that successful gender reassignment is possible in young children, recommended that Bruce have reconstructive surgery and be raised as a girl, Brenda. (Penile reconstruction wasn’t possible then.) The existence of an identical twin boy was an ideal control for his experiment.
The parents followed his advice (except for a final surgery), and in 1972, Dr. Money—having seen his patient only annually–published the case as a success to great acclaim. Meanwhile, young Reimer was struggling at school, where he was rejected and bullied. As he entered puberty and was really suffering, his parents finally told him his history, and he began transitioning back to a male identity, calling himself David.
Reimer went public with his story in 1997, and his account included details about how Dr. Money forced him and his brother to have sex in various positions and even photographed them as part of the therapy. The doctor and his theories were discredited. Reimer had surgery to reconstruct his male genitals as much as possible and later married, but he committed suicide in 2004, as his brother had in 2002.
Ziegler’s play, which is a bit hard to get into as it moves back and forth between 1968 and 1990 and Davenport, Iowa, and Boston, Massachusetts, totally omits any sexual abuse. It begins with the 23-year-old Reimer character, who calls himself Adam Turner (Theo Germaine), meeting Jenny Lafferty (Emily Marso) at a Halloween party, where he’s costumed as Frankenstein’s monster. It ends, very sweetly, at another Halloween gathering. In between are often charming scenes of the couple’s developing, if halting, relationship and of Adam’s past, especially his sessions with Dr. Wendell Barnes (David Parkes), the Dr. Money stand-in.
Everyone seems to have the best intentions here. While Parkes makes Dr. Barnes a little creepy, he genuinely seems to care about his patient, and if nothing else, teaches the child he calls Samantha to enjoy reading. He’s later accused of just wanting a career-enhancing case study, but his worst sin is a failure to realize and accept the idea that Adam doesn’t fit his preconceptions.
Adam’s parents, Trudy (Mechelle Moe, just nervous and ditsy enough) and Doug Turner (Stef Tovar, gruff and rough around the edges), are motivated by a genuine concern that exceeds their comprehension of the situation. At a loss as to what to do, they’re willing to follow the doctor’s orders, but to their credit, when Adam balks at having the final sex-change operation to become a woman and is finding his voice as a young man, they support him.
One of the most moving scenes is between Adam, a luminous Germaine, and his father Doug, who in his awkward way, finally tells the truth. This enables Adam to understand his emotions, but he doesn’t indulge in recriminations, except to insist on not seeing Dr. Barnes again, though when he does once more, he’s kinder than one might expect.
Indeed, while issues of gender identity and acceptance are very timely, the takeaway from “Boy” pretty much boils down to love can conquer all and telling the truth is always best. Carefully directed by Damon Kiely, the action unfolds on a carpeted runway stage with the audience on either side and floor-to-ceiling shadowbox bookcases at either end filled with evocative period collectibles, toys, and household items. Every detail is worked out nicely, right down to the music-of-the-era soundtrack.