In ‘Boy’ at Keegan Theatre, the anguish of a gender experiment gone wrong

Inspired by a true story, the emotional journey of a youth who was born a boy and raised a girl.

“Oh, god. Maybe it didn’t work,” the mother exclaims in alarm. It’s the moment in this hold-your-breath drama when she realizes the gender experiment done on her child, one of two identical twins born male, had been a horrendous failure. The experiment, instigated by an opportunistic sexologist, entailed coercing the child into being a girl after a botched circumcision had cauterized off the child’s penis.

Vishwas as Dr. Wendell Barnes and John Jones as Adam Turner in ‘Boy.’ Photo by Cameron Whitman.

The play by Anna Ziegler, titled Boy, was inspired by a true story. The riveting and affecting production at Keegan Theatre sweeps us into the emotional mess that that doctor made of that child’s life—an inconceivable inner torment that in John Jones’s phenomenal performance feels heartrendingly real. The play ushers us into the resistance and resilience of that brave child, who began when a tween to insist on living as the boy he was born to be. Eventually, in his early twenties, he falls in love with a young woman who loves him back.

Susan Marie Rhea directs with all the care this sensitive story requires. Matthew J. Keenan’s simple, sonogram-shaped set in baby blue subtly streaked with pink suggests a calm space where pleasant infant memory happens, with a doorway passage to places unknown. Yet as the story shifts back and forth in time—from the child’s troubled youth as Samantha to the boy’s self-chosen identity as Adam—inter-scene projections by Jeremy Bennett evoke embryonic cells whorling under a microscope and sounds by Niusha Nawab amplify fetal heartbeats, and it is as if we are immersed in remembered medicalization.

The extraordinary supporting cast of four—Karen Novack and Mike Kozemchak as the mother and father, Vishwas as the doctor, Lida Maria Benson as the girlfriend—are each movingly invested in seeking to understand the anguish of the central character played by Jones. But Ziegler’s script, which at times feels underwritten, stays on the chatty social surface of things, leaving depths of unspoken emotion to the actors to understand and deliver. And it is here that Jones’s performance is most striking, for they have found far, far more feeling than is in the text. It is as though they have so personally identified with the character’s gender journey that in the intense immediacy of their expression we cannot but travel along.

John Jones as Adam Turner and Vishwas as Dr. Wendell Barnes in ‘Boy.’ Photo by Cameron Whitman.

Watch how Jones as Samantha tries to pretend to be a good girl in order to please the exacting doctor, even as doing so is a constant contradiction of self. Watch their tremulous resolve when as Samanta they defy the doctor’s direction that she submit to vaginoplasty.

And watch how as Adam they recoil when Jenny, the enthusiastic and joyful young woman whom Adam is genuinely attracted to, asks him simple questions about his childhood. Adam can’t go there. Adam cannot reveal to Jenny his past as a false girl. And Jones lets us see the pain and sadness of that self-enforced silence. Then watch Jones’s release of throttled feeling when at last Adam declares to Jenny, “I think about you constantly.” And watch the incredibly moving scene when Jones as Adam says, “I’m not like other men,” then touches Jenny without touching her, only speaking descriptive words and asking if she feels it.

Portions of Boy are excruciating to contemplate. (And the true story on which it is based is even more so.*) But in John Jones’s transcendent performance as both the girl Samantha and the boy Adam, this play ostensibly about sex assignment becomes an indelible journey of the genderless heart.

This one’s too precious to pass up.

Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes, with no intermission.

Boy plays through March 7, 2020, at the Keegan Theatre – 1742 Church Street, NW, in Washington DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 265-3767 or go online.

Cast
Adam Turner: John Jones
Dr. Wendell Barnes: Vishwas
Jenny Lafferty: Lida Maria Benson
Trudy Turner: Karen Novack
Doug Turner: Mike Kozemchak

Production Team
Director: Susan Marie Rhea
Set Designer: Matthew J. Keenan
Sound Designer: Niusha Nawab
Lighting Designer: Alberto Segarra
Projections Designer: Jeremy Bennett
Properties / Set Dress Designer: Cindy Landrum Jacobs
Costume / Hair / Makeup Designer: Alison Samantha Johnson
Dramaturgs: Elizabeth Winston, Clarke Whitehead
Stage Manager Emily Dwornik

*Boy is inspired by the life of David Reimer (1967–2004) as told by John Colapinto originally in a 1997 article in Rolling Stone titled “The True Story of John/Joan” and later in his 2000 book, As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised a Girl. Anna Ziegler has toned down what really happened considerably. In real life David, his mother, and his identical twin brother committted suicide.

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John Stoltenberg
John Stoltenberg is currently interim editor in chief of DC Metro Theater Arts. He writes both reviews and his Magic Time! column, which he named after that magical moment between life and art just before a show begins. In it, he explores how art makes sense of life—and vice versa—as he reflects on meanings that matter in the theater he sees. Decades ago, in college, John began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile, his own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then John’s life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction essays, articles, and books and had a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg.

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