Chicago Theater Review: BOY (TimeLine Theatre Co.)

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by Lawrence Bommer on January 18, 2018

in Theater-Chicago


What resonates in each of the 90 minutes of TimeLine Theatre Company’s Boy is the play’s total absence of rage or recrimination. As compassionately told by Anne Ziegler, this deeply moving one-act recounts a true-life/true-love tale of what was once called in Louisiana a “crime against nature.” Boy could have degenerated into a feeding frenzy of blame-throwing and victim-shaming. Instead it utterly glows in the dark.

Seldom has gender reassignment (in the largest sense possible) taken such a convoluted course to reach a remarkably happy outcome. But, as the Bard said, the course of true love never did run smooth. By Boy’s end love finds a way that’s overwhelmingly wonderful.

Creating cunning contrasts, the scenes in Boy alternate between 1968 and 1990 and Davenport, Iowa and Boston, Massachusetts. They chronicle the astonishing saga of David Reimer (here called Adam Turner), a child who had to wait 15 years to become the boy that he was born to be. Adam’s life story emerges as twisted as it happened: The audience must piece together the turning and healing points in Adam’s journey from one sex to his original one.

Straightening it out for the sake of a synopsis, twin brothers — here Steven and Sam — endured circumcisions as babies. But, in an anatomically-destructive accident, the doctor botched Sam’s medical procedure. To hide his error, the doctor persuaded the parents — here Trudy and Doug Turner — to raise Sam as “Samantha.”

Only at the age of 14 did this “tomboy,” who identified with Luke Skywalker more than Jane Eyre, realize that his psyche didn’t fit his clothes or toys. That forces the “non-girl” to defy “her” mentor/doctor Wendell Barnes (in fact Dr. John Money, co-founder, a half-century ago, of America’s first gender identity clinic). This clueless doctor (David Barnes), a second father who resists the thwarted hopes of the real, had taught his pupil/patient the joy of reading. Unaware of any irony, he counsels “Samantha”: “Your life is your own. You must tell your own story.” It was wrenching to adamantly refuse to continue the charade and have his “vagina” fixed. As it was, Adam underwent three operations, but penile reconstruction proved impossible.

Sharing the same bedroom, Adam recalls the envy he felt at watching his twin brother’s active organ enact Stephen’s wet dreams. Neither transgender nor intersex as we make such distinctions today, Adam Turner (a fascinatingly androgynous Theo Germaine) was, you could say, one of the “lost boys” in Peter Pan. Temporarily confirming Freud, for him anatomy was destiny — not surgery. Nature will out.

But Ziegler’s beautiful play reveals much more than the hapless good intentions and anguished guilt of Adam’s parents (Mechelle Moe and Stef Tovar, endearingly convincing). “Maybe it didn’t work” is the mother’s woefully understated verdict. It also goes beyond Adam’s agonizing reunion with Dr. Barnes, when the sex doctor can finally see beyond the fiction known as Samantha.

Boy also delivers the power of love to fix fate: Appropriately on Halloween, the play begins and ends with Adam showing, if not making, love to Jenny Lafferty (a radiant Emily Marso). This single mother understands the 23-year-old as well from the inside out. Their shared scenes are manna from actors’ heaven — playful, charming, and deservingly decent. When Adam shares with Jenny a poem by Leigh Hunt that he learned from Dr. Barnes — the lovely lyric “Jenny Kissed Me” — it fits her name and his soul to totality. Few plays ever end this perfectly.

Director Damon Kiely works many theatrical miracles on TimeLine’s runway stage, surrounded by a cabinet of childhood curiosities, so many “Cornell boxes” lovingly assembled by scenic designer Arnel Sancianco. Rightly refusing the anger that happily never mars Ziegler’s golden script, five unimprovable actors create no villains or victims. They have no axes to grind. Strangely, that negative triumph feels every bit as satisfying as the bedrock authenticity they bring to a mother, father, doctor, lover, and, first and finally, a son.

If 2018 brings us a better show or staging, it will stand out for a century.

photos by Lara Goetsch

TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington Ave.
Wed & Thurs at 7:30; Fri at 8;
Sat at 4 & 8; Sun at 2
(check for additional performances)
ends on March 18, 2018
for tickets, call 773.281.8463 x 6
or visit Timeline

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago


Archer Curry January 19, 2018 at 10:22 am

Lovely review!

I had one comment though, in this line: “Neither transgendered nor intersex as we make such distinctions today,” you have used the term “transgendered”.

The correct word to use in that sentence would be “transgender”.

This article has a helpful table towards the bottom that helps clarify this.


Larry Bommer January 19, 2018 at 2:51 pm

I went by the theater’s original press release description; changing to “transgender” should not be a problem with my editor.

Editor-in-Chief Tony Frankel January 19, 2018 at 2:52 pm

The change has been made!

John T January 19, 2018 at 2:47 pm

An unexpected but welcome reason to add to why circumcision is wrong. Wish I could be in Chicago to see it!

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