REVIEW: Proud Mary’s Tragic Tale of Forced Gender Switch

BY STEVE WONG
DRAMA CRITIC

There are few things in life that make everyone — both men and women — cringe, tightly cross your legs, squeeze your eyes shut, and shudder in horror.

One of those things is the basis for a devastatingly great play now in Upstate South Carolina, produced by Proud Mary Theatre Company. The mental picture — or lack thereof — of a severed penis is certainly one of those things. Just reading those words makes you want to stop reading and stop thinking about it — but don’t stop. This is an important play, and everyone should experience it in hopes of understanding just how important a penis can be not only in a man’s life but in the lives of those around him. When it comes to gender identity, it is iconic.

Boy is about a person who was born a baby boy (along with a twin brother) and the victim of a botched circumcision. To add insult to the injury, the baby’s parents were medically advised to rear the child as a girl and never ever tell the person the truth.

If that’s not the most stupid, most outlandish, most immoral thing I’ve ever heard of, I don’t know what this world is coming to. Unfortunately, this sad tale is based on a true story. Just typing these words makes me cringe again.

If you can mentally and emotionally get passed the bodily harm inflicted on the person, you enter into the far-more horrific cultural and social nightmare the main character can never wake from. Like the Frankenstein monster, this person was created nearly unlovable, even by his makers: his parents and the mad scientist (a psychologist). And, like Frankenstein, all the person ever wanted was to be accepted, if by no one else, at least by him/herself.

Proud Mary and the five characters in the hailed Off-Broadway play are commended for their courage and talent, telling a story that most people would rather not think about, much less see live on stage. There is hardly any set beyond a few chairs, few props, and the only costume worth mentioning is a makeshift skirt the main character wears in flashback scenes to his induced female childhood. This is a play that takes outstanding acting talent to be successful, and succeed it does with tragic beauty. Early on in the play, when I saw the real tears welling in Elizabeth Colson’s eyes as she played the mother, Trudy, trying to come to grips with her child’s uncertain fate, I knew these actors had fully assumed their characters.

Boy has no graphic scenes, just graphic ideas. So don’t worry about seeing blood or violence. There’s about a dozen four-letter words. Like most great storytelling, it is not the gore on the big screen or the picture-painting words in a novel that kick us in the guts, but the accumulation of the more subtle and accessible bits and pieces of daily horror that make for sleepless nights. Welcome to Sam/Samatha/Adam’s so-called life. The play opens and closes as a struggling love story between a young man and a woman, and in between we come to understand the tragic circumstances through a series of flashbacks that chronicle the main character’s life.

The character born Sam, converted to Samantha, and self-named Adam as an adult is played by Noah Fitzer, a real-life transgender actor who identifies as gender-nonbinary and prefers to be referred to by the pronouns “they/them.”

Noah is from Greenville and is a rising sophomore at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, GA. Noah — with a slight physical build and baby-smooth face — could not be more perfectly cast in this role as a male denied his biological pre-set and forced to dress and act like a girl despite much evidence to the contrary. At this young age, Fitzer shows great acting talent, having to swing from anguished adulthood to depressed childhood, from frustrated lover to resentful young man, from total confusion to some level of self-acceptance.

Sam’s love interest throughout the play is Jenny, played by Valerie Saporito, a young woman who epitomizes womanhood, especially when dressed as a Playboy bunny. She has worked on various Upstate theatre productions in off-stage duties, but this is her local acting debut. Saporito does an excellent job being the would-be girlfriend to Adam, but as you might imagine, that is no easy task — especially as the relationship grows and would naturally become intimate. I was impressed with her confusion in trying to guess and eventually understand why the man she was falling in love with was so secretive, hostile, conflicted, angry, and sad. She played her character’s womanly endurance and compassion with talent that needs to stay in the spotlight.

Colson, playing Adam’s mother, stole my heart early with her deep understanding and internalizing of the emotions a mother would have when faced with rearing a child who doesn’t understand why he/she has no place in society. She and Saporito were especially good in their interactions when Jenny was brought home to meet his mother.

In his first few scenes as Doug (Adam’s father), Tyler Smith has few words, but closer observations of him in the background reveal a man at war with himself and nearly everyone else as a result of his son being butchered and forced to be a girl. As a working-class character, Smith was classic dad right down to the beer drinking and flannel shirt, and ultimately exploded like a ticking bomb when he finally confronted the doctor about his ethical sins. There’s no fury like a father’s when it comes to his son.

Finally, Ben Dawkins plays Dr. Wendell Barnes, the doctor who convinces the parents to raise Adam/Sam as a girl. Dawkins masters the placating voice of reason and authority that doctors often have. In his interactions with child Samantha and her parents, he has to continually convince them that his plan is the correct one, but the audience isn’t buying it. There is an ick-factor to Wendell that sets in from the very beginning and never goes away — not even when the adult Adam confronts him and he slinks away. Dawkins plays this bad guy character with more depth than one might expect.

This is director Robert Fuson’s last play (at least for a while) for Proud Mary and for the Upstate. We might remember, he directed Proud Mary’s first production, I Am My Own Wife, which took Outstanding Director, Best Play and Best Actor awards at the 2017 Southeastern Theatre Conference Community Theatre Festival. I am most impressed with Fuson’s depth of understanding of such sensitive topics and his ability to put them before the eyes of the general public in a way that anyone can find meaning and understanding. We wish him luck as he ventures to Atlanta to bigger (not better) things.

Boy was written by Anna Ziegler, a playwright renowned for her edgy productions. Since 2016, it has played at several theaters around the nation with mixed reviews, leaning toward the positive. It is a multilayered production with a great many references to classical literature and art. One would do well to see this play more than once to seek out as many nuances as possible.

Once again, Proud Mary has stayed in her lane of producing plays about — or at least of interest to — the LGBTQ-plus community. But even if you have no interest in gay rights or lesbian lifestyles or fashions for crossdressing, Boy goes far beyond sexual preferences and gender identity. It raises questions about medical ethics, parenting, not having choices, and giving and accepting love under the most devastating circumstances. It is a haunting play, made all the more disturbing to know it is based on a true story.Boy continues at Coffee Underground in Greenville Aug. 13 and 14 and at The Market Theatre Company in Anderson, Aug. 16-18. Tickets are available at the door or at http://www.proudmarytheatre.com/tickets.

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