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Keen Company's new play wonders what 'masculinity' means
Bobby Steggert plays one character in Anna Ziegler's new play Boy. But in some ways he's really playing two.
"One is this young man who has completely shut his past out of his consciousness, deep into his sub-consciousness," he explains. "He's a man in his mid-twenties who thinks that he's dealt with it all and completely moved on."
The other character, a troubled child, doesn't just represent the man's past; she is his past.
Boy, Keen Company's co-production with Ensemble Studio Theatre and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Project, navigates the fraught terrain of gender identity and sexuality, as well as the complicated bond between doctor and patient. Based on the real-life story of David Reimer, the play follows an infant who is born male but raised female. For a performer, this double duty – inhabiting both Samantha, a young girl whose femininity is imposed upon her, and Adam, a man coming to terms with his true masculinity – presents an enormous challenge.
Steggert pulls it off by turning Samantha into an evocation of Adam's childhood. "We wanted to go very simple and gestural," he says. "The goal was never to fully inhabit [a girl]." Instead, he hints at childlike femininity when he switches to Samantha, keeping his back straight, body still, and legs either together or crossed. The transformation is more symbolic than literal. Similarly, director Linsay Firman and costume designer Sydney Maresca resist costume changes, so any references to the young girl's dresses are imagined by the audience.
"What we wanted to portray is the man's memory of being stuck in that place," says Steggert. "I do see it as playing two very separate people." As Adam, he's more physically assertive, chest out as he flirts with a woman he knows. The character feels like a man trying to own rather than perform his gender, although traces of shame and confusion still surface. "For Adam as an adult, it's really about what it is to not be fully in your body, to not be fully accepting of the body you are in," Steggert says.
Half of the performance may be symbolic, but Steggert's tears onstage are certainly real. To hit both Samantha and Adam's emotional ups and downs, he reaches for the personal. "I grew up a very shy gay kid in Maryland," he says. "I didn't feel trapped in my own body, but did feel there would never be anyone at any time who would accept me. I also felt like I wasn't a real boy because examples of real boys were the ones who played sports and were bigger than I was."
Steggert adds that stories like Boy – that explore and challenge the idea of masculinity – will always resonate. "I think we live in a society where the definition of manhood is so narrow and so unforgiving. My process as a human growing up has been coming to terms with being a man in the world that does not fit the cookie-cutter image of what an American man is supposed to be." Because Ziegler's play takes place in the 1970s and '80s, those images were even more firmly planted in the zeitgeist than they are today.
"You hear stories of women having to walk with textbooks on their heads," says Steggert, whose research included spending time with transgender men and women in multiple generations. "Talking to a lot of people growing up in the 70s and 80s, there was a sexual revolution in one section of society, but people really believed in the gender binary."
Upon first reading Boy, Steggert knew the play would resonate for anyone who deviates from that binary, or feels uncomfortable in their own skin. But he also grabbed at the role for its sheer difficulty. "I don't know, maybe I'm a bit of a masochist as an actor," he says. "But when I see an enormous emotional challenge, I kind of jump at it."
TDF MEMBERS: At press time, discount tickets were available to Boy. Browse all our current offers.
Photo – of Paul Niebanck and Bobby Steggert – by Carol Rosegg