Humane beings

  • by Richard Dodds
  • Tuesday March 28, 2017
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Eight-year-old Morgan's family provides<br>support as gender issues are navigated in <i>Everything's That<br>Beautiful,</i> now in a world-premiere<br>production at New Conservatory Theatre Center. Photo: Lois Tema
Eight-year-old Morgan's family provides
support as gender issues are navigated in Everything's That
now in a world-premiere
production at New Conservatory Theatre Center. Photo: Lois Tema

It's one thing if Bruce Jenner decides to publically identify as a woman �" it's a little late to be calling it a phase �" but when prepubescent children insist that they are not what their genitalia suggests, parents are understandably flummoxed. Aren't the kids too young to make such fundamental decisions about themselves? Buy him boxing gloves and her a princess outfit, and wait for the phase to pass.

But there are increasing numbers of parents who believe it's better to nurture than to fight, knowing that challenges await, but not really knowing how or when or their enormity. Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder's new play Everything That's Beautiful charts one family's early journey into these uncharted waters with a warmth that doesn't dismiss the confusion and uncertainty affecting every move that both child and parents take. Developed in the theater's new-play program, this appealingly humane work is having its world premiere at New Conservatory Theatre Center.

While their motives may be complicated, parents Luke and Jess have decided to relocate from small-town Pennsylvania to New York City, where they hope acceptance will come more easily for eight-year-old Morgan, who was their son but who they are trying to let grow up as their daughter. Morgan has no doubt about that gender identity, but that hasn't been achieved without attempts at self-inflicted harm. The family may have found a welcome anonymity in the big city, but they haven't been able to escape their own internal conflicts.

Ed Decker's sensitive direction provides breathing room for the characters to emerge organically, and while there are flirtations with melodrama, these moments aren't allowed to pull the play out of shape. The cast is very much in tune with the rhythms and tones of the play, while Devin Kasper's scenic design of swooping shapes and aquatic motifs provides an atmospheric setting in whatever location the characters find themselves.

One of the most important locales is a water park, where Morgan's older brother has a summer job selling snow-cones, and where a mermaid show leaves Morgan spellbound. Gaby, the resident mermaid, who also works in seamier circumstances in Coney Island, bonds with Morgan, and offers free swimming lessons. She doesn't seem to mind spending time with Luke either, while Jess has a mild flirtation of her own in play at her job as a waitress. There must be a crash before the family can rebuild on a more solid foundation.

The playwright made the dicey decision to have an eight-year-old character an equal part of the proceedings, but this production has a treasure in Mattea Fountain. The 6th grader plays Morgan with astonishing aplomb, displaying a solid grasp of the circumstances swirling around the character, and delivering dialogue with confidence. Dana Zook effectively captures Morgan's brave-front mother who can't shake the knit-brow of worry. As Luke, William Giammona plays the most bottled-up character, and he lets us see his conflicting emotions as much through body language as dialogue. Nick Moore is utterly convincing as the surly teenage son who resents having to go along with his parents' accommodations for Morgan's needs, while April Deutschle plays the water-park mermaid with an inviting sense of mystery.

Morgan's parents may be progressive, but they have no answers that will carry them beyond the immediate present. What can Jess say when Morgan declares she doesn't have a penis? And Luke is left speechless when Morgan asks him, "Do you think boys will think I'm pretty?" The answers will have to await plays yet to be written.


Everything That's Beautiful will run at New Conservatory Theatre Center through April 23. Tickets are $25-$50. Call (415) 861-8972.