“Becoming a Man” is a world-premiere play about one man’s gender transition amid a pivotal political moment in America./AMERICAN REPERTORY THEATER

‘Becoming a Man’ follows transition of body and soul

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‘Becoming a Man’ follows transition of body and soul

“Becoming a Man” is a world-premiere play about one man’s gender transition amid a pivotal political moment in America./AMERICAN REPERTORY THEATER

P. Carl’s transition from conflicted Polly to a confident bearded man took decades – a journey the author chronicled in a 2020 memoir entitled “Becoming a Man: A Story of a Transition.” Now, the 50-something Indiana native has written “Becoming A Man,” a play commissioned by the American Repertory Theater that details the challenges and triumphs of that transformation.

In the playbill for its world premiere, playwright/codirector Carl notes, “ ‘Becoming a Man’ is about surviving, becoming embodied, and learning to live.” As earnestly helmed by A.R.T. artistic director Diane Paulus and the author, this ambitious 90-minute effort ranges from explorations of gender and identity to depictions of family and marital conflicts in a provocative and very timely play that could do with a stronger dramatic through line for its insights.

One of those insights – understated yet pivotal – involves Carl’s mention of Walter Benjamin and his seminal ideas about aura. The German Jewish thinker wrote about aura as an ineffable quality in art and objects. Carl sees an aura in the uniqueness of an individual. In his own case, that uniqueness has to do with a person’s original presence in time and space. Thanks to Emmie Finckel’s strikingly spare sets and Brittany Bland’s vivid video design, the development of Carl’s own uniqueness as a fully identified male takes on artistic dimension.

That development confronts a number of challenges. There is the ongoing difficulty of Carl’s more than 20-year relationship – much of it in marriage – with lesbian writer Lynette D’Amico, who loves Polly, wants to understand her transition, and feels men are weak. At the same time, he struggles with the formidable dynamics of having a very difficult father and a dementia-stricken mother. Over the years, there are treatments at a psychiatric ward and suicide attempts (at one point, the convalescing takes place just a 15-minute walk from the house of the 1942 Wannsee Conference of Nazi leaders in Berlin plotting the “The Final Solution”). Very tellingly, Carl’s friend Nathan advises him that being a good man is as important as simply being a man. Carl must realize that his gender identity involves much more exploration than his seeming obsession with sneakers and gym time with other men.

“Becoming a Man” moves through all of these elements, though scenes sometimes lack the fluidity that the transitioning author often finds while swimming in a pool.

Even so, the strong individual performances and ensemble moments do a lot to make Carl’s journey both informative and compelling. Transgender actor Petey Gibson is commandingly moving as Carl – especially when arguing with equally strong-willed Lynette – played with arresting intensity and attitude by Elena Hurst. Hurst is especially riveting as Lynette speaks with singular candor about her uterine cancer and Carl’s seeming singlemindedness. Gibson fully convinces during Carl’s stretches of vulnerability and insecurity as well as his exuberant expressions of fulfillment in transitioning.

By contrast, Stacey Raymond has the right combination of reticence and inner conflict as Polly – particular at moments when Polly watches Carl from the side in a clever visual statement about transitioning. Christopher Liam Moore has all of Carl’s father’s recliner chair inertness and shortcomings, treating his wife like a servant and lacking real caring as a parent. Susan Rome is properly fragile as Carl’s mother. Cody Sloan captures Nathan’s supportiveness as a genuine friend. Justin Davis has all of trainer Eddie’s sensitivity.

During an opening night 20-minute conversation with audience members – which will follow each performance – a theatergoer singled out the pool and Carl’s swimming as particularly memorable elements of the play. “Becoming a Man” has many memorable moments in its dramatization of transitioning. Carl’s swimming proves very exhilarating as an expression of his freedom. Going forward, he needs to tighten his play to make it truly flow.  Θ

“Becoming a Man” runs through March 10 at the American Repertory Theater in Harvard Square. For tickets, visit americanrepertorytheater.org.

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