Erin Shea Brady is a contributing writer and critic at PerformInk and Newcity Stage. Directing credits include: Everybody (Brown Paper Box Co.) and Cabaret, Annapurna (staged reading) and The Rise and Fall of Little Voice (No Stakes Theater Project). Erin has assistant directed and dramaturged productions at the Goodman, Jackalope, TimeLine, A Red Orchid, Northlight, and Remy Bumppo. Erin is a graduate of the directing program at Columbia College Chicago, the internship program at Steppenwolf, Jackalope's inaugural Playwright's Lab, and participated in the Goodman's Criticism in a Changing America bootcamp. Erin is a company member with Brown Paper Box Co. and is currently pursuing her MSW at Loyola.
Stef Tovar and Theo Germaine. Photo by Lara Goetsch
By Erin Shea Brady
As TimeLine is known to do, from the moment we enter the theater, the audience is immersed in the contemporary realities of Anna Ziegler’s BOY. In the lobby, we see photos of intersex, transgender, and gender nonconforming individuals curated by Jireh L. Drake and K. Rodriguez, which begin a soulful, complex conversation about the gender binary that Ziegler’s play, directed by Damon Kiely, carries forward.
More than six transgender individuals worked on this play (including gender identity consultant Josephine Kearns), which accounts for its passionate tone, and exemplifies the importance of representation throughout a production team. Because of the lens through which this story is presented, the audience has the opportunity to learn that not all stories about the spectrum of gender are the same, that intersex, transgender and genderqueer individuals forge many different paths on the journey to finding their truth, and that the full scope of these stories cannot be distilled down into one convenient narrative. There is, instead, an urgent, painful through–line of discrimination and misgendering which unites these perspectives and demands to be heard.
BOY is not a transgender story. This is a story of a cisgender man, Adam (Theo Germaine), who, due to a horrific accident and the ignorance of his doctor and well-intentioned parents (Stef Tovar and Mechelle Moe), is aggressively misgendered as a girl, “Samantha,” throughout his formative years. Through flashbacks to his childhood and his adult pursuit of love (Jenny, played by Emily Marso), we watch as Adam discovers his truth and finds the courage to claim it.
This growth is a turbulent process. Adam has been gaslighted, raised in a world where boundaries are disrespected, largely by his doctor (David Parkes) who engages in this “experiment” for personal gain and forms an intense and unstable connection with “Samantha.” This instability is mirrored in Adam’s pursuit of Jenny, which is often sweet, but borders on unsafe and even unwanted. In trying to navigate adulthood without a stable foundation, Adam seeks a role model in a world that doesn’t understand him. Adam’s parents — who, at times, seem like performative caricatures of gender stereotypes — grapple openly with the truth that they were not only unable to protect their child, but that their ignorance and negligence is at the root of their son’s agony.
The relationships and the traumas introduced in Ziegler’s story are complex and left me with more questions than answers. In a way, this is essential. My hope for all stories that dive into controversial, polarizing or unfamiliar experiences is that they will spark conversation and education. TimeLine has provided enough material in their program to start us off, but the onus is on the audience to dig deeper. These characters are certainly dynamic enough to warrant our curiosity, and human enough to incite our empathy. But the emotional and psychological complexities that are born from each interaction in Ziegler’s script deserve more exploration onstage. We get a vital deep dive into the emotional and physical anguish that comes with being misgendered, but the tangential issues of conditioning, unethical research, consent, and parenting are less developed.
That said, these circumstances lend themselves to captivating performances. Having now seen him in a variety of roles, I’m struck by Stef Tovar’s remarkable ability to transform, to approach each character uniquely, and to derive the life of each character from the space between himself and his scene partner. His work is authentic, unassuming, and often the backbone of the world he inhabits. In BOY, if Tovar is the backbone, Theo Germaine is the heart, which beats loud and strong through this production. Their presence, experience and advocacy are felt in the importance of telling Adam’s story and they deftly handle the wide range of emotional situations that the play requires. David Parkes as Dr. Wendell Barnes plays in some deep, dark spaces and is fascinating to watch. Though the female characters feel less developed, Mechelle Moe and Emily Marso both give strong, resonant performances.
I hope, as theaters continue to curate their seasons, that we continue to prioritize such complex, heartfelt stories and that we continue to expand representation for transgender and intersex communities. With BOY, TimeLine sets a strong example of theater as a call to action, conversation and empathy.
BOY runs through March 18th. For more information timelinetheatre.com.