Anna Ziegler’s drama “Boy” is based on the real life of David Reimer, a young Canadian man who was raised from infancy as a girl, after a horrific surgical accident during a circumcision procedure. The play renames the character Samuel (or Samantha) Turner and relocates the story to Davenport, Iowa, where he/she grows up, and Boston, where a renowned psychologist periodically counsels him/her over the span of some 20 years.
Jumping back and forth in time, the action takes place between 1968 and 1990 – long before gender identity issues became more commonplace, and before even the most well-meaning parents or doctors knew better than to follow the course of “treatment” they do in this case. For all of their misguided attempts to “nurture” her, Sam is aware of his true “nature” from an early age. But he/she is sadly unable to fully express it or to assume much control of the situation, lacking what’s described in the play as the “power to shape one’s own reality.”
Although Dr. Barnes advises the parents to avoid subjecting the child to any of the usual “boy stuff,” Sam gradually begins to exhibit “classic tomboy” tendencies nonetheless. He has Sam read “Jane Eyre,” hoping to encourage a certain identification with the heroine of the novel. And later, after Sam sees the movie “Star Wars,” Barnes tries to discourage the kid from relating quite so strongly with Luke Skywalker.
Under the direction of Melissa Foulger, Theatrical Outfit’s “Boy” co-stars associate artistic director Clifton Guterman in the title role, opposite artistic director Tom Key as the doctor.
Guterman clearly has the showier part. The play runs 90-odd minutes with no intermission. Given Ziegler’s zigzagging structure, from one instant to the next, Guterman transitions from an adolescent “girl” to a 20-ish man awkwardly embarking on a courtship with a young single mother (played by Annie York). He’ll take off his jacket, wrap it around his waist as a skirt of sorts, and suddenly step back into the past for another therapy session with the doctor.
His performance is very evenly matched by Key, who’s most often prone to portraying singularly virtuous and upstanding characters, as opposed to deeply flawed ones. While the doctor is largely sympathetic and hardly a “bad guy,” Key brings a sufficient shading to the role to substantiate later assertions in the play about his motives and intentions.
The supporting cast is somewhat weaker. York is OK as the love interest, but the climactic revelations of the last scene don’t adequately register with her. Likewise, Matt Lewis and Daryl Lisa Fazio are effective enough as the long-suffering parents, but more accomplished actors could have achieved a lot more.
The production values are respectable: The detailed set is designed by Barrett Doyle and Joel Coady, the subtle lighting by Lauren Robinson.
At one point, the doctor talks to Sam about the ability of high art to move and inspire. At the very least, that “Boy” may fall short of that level doesn’t make its sensitive subject matter any less interesting.
Through Oct. 15. 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays. $20.50-$49. Balzer Theater at Herren’s, 84 Luckie St. NW, Atlanta. 678-528-1500. www.theatricaloutfit.org.
Bottom line: Well-meaning.