When Anna Ziegler was applying for a Manhattan Theatre Club/Alfred P. Sloan Foundation commission, geared towards plays that address science, math or technology, she knew that she wanted her proposal to be about gender. “I think I was just looking for some interesting lens to think about [science],” she says. “I had written this other play that was about the discovery of DNA, and I wanted to do something that was very different and also that could feel a little bit more accessible.” That’s when she came across the story of David Reimer, a male raised as a female until his teenage years, and realized his story was her way into the complicated topic. That idea became Boy, a co-production between Keen Company and Ensemble Studio Theatre playing at Theatre Row through April 9.
Actor Bobby Steggert plays Adam, a male raised as a female after a mishandled circumcision, who then at age 15 starts his life over as a man, and, in his 20s, experiences his first relationship with a woman. Boy differs from the transgender stories we’ve seen in the media lately—although it shares many themes—in that the protagonist never asked for gender reassignment. Ziegler started writing the drama about six years ago, before gender was as much in the zeitgeist as it is today. “That’s what happens if you work on a play long enough, it might become trendy,” she says. “I think the gay rights movement has a lot to do with [the influx of stories on gender],” says Steggert. “It’s breaking down our understanding of what a man is and what a woman is, and I think there are so many more examples nowadays of people breaking the gender binary and being more ambiguous either in their gender expression or their gender identity. It’s allowing us to see things with fewer boundaries between them”—ambiguity Ziegler deals with in her work.
The circumstances of Ziegler’s play mirror Reimer’s, but the work is original and fictional. “If you read the David Reimer story, the doctor who treated him named John Money does not come off as particularly sympathetic.... My interest was in people who are really trying to do their best for this child—the parents and the doctor,” she says. “I think the world is filled with people who have great intentions and then horrible things go wrong anyway, and that’s in some ways harder to come to terms with, and that felt very interesting to me.” Emotion drives Ziegler’s piece, be it through characters like the doctor or Adam and his younger self.
When Steggert portrays Samantha (Adam’s name as a child) in flashback scenes, he doesn’t wear a dress or speak in an overtly girly voice, but portrays her childlike nature through simple gestures. “Hopefully the audience can connect to the emotional experience of that kid and not have to be distracted by too much behavior,” Steggert says, which also speaks to Ziegler’s desire for audiences to feel a personal response. “It is speaking to anyone who didn’t feel comfortable in their body,” she says. “That encompasses a huge range of people, even people who do fit into the gender binary. This is obviously a very extreme situation, but a lot of us have that discomfort to different degrees.”
Steggert, for one, connects to the material. “I certainly understand what it feels like to have grown up feeling like I couldn’t measure up. I grew up in a very rural place [in Maryland] where only certain qualities were acceptable for men to have. I loved music, and I was a good student, and I was very small, and I was shy, and I loved to read, and these were all qualities that weren’t celebrated in boys,” he says. “I never felt like I was a ‘real boy.’ In the same way that Samantha doesn’t feel like she’s a real girl. So it’s the mirror image. I had the exact inverse experience as Samantha. But because it’s the mirror image, it’s the same.”
Ziegler’s own connection to the piece became stronger since her son was born in 2013, solidifying her beliefs that nature has more power than nurture, a key theme in the play. “I thought amazingly early that my son was very much his own person, and it felt like the degree to which I was shaping him was very minimal,” says Ziegler. “Once you have a kid, I think you really see that and certainly [with] my friends who have more than one child, you see it’s the same parents raising children and they come out so differently. I think is a very human testament to the power of our genes.” We see this lesson through Adam, as he wages his own path of self-discovery.
Steggert adds, “You watch so many people fighting their natures as a result of feeling different, and I think the play is a beautiful argument for the power of nature and the importance that we respect it.”
Linda Buchwald is a New York-based arts journalist focusing on theatre and television. Follow her on Twitter @PataphysicalSci.