Parenting is not an easy road to travel, generally. Throw into the mix a child who believes himself (or herself) to be of the sex that they weren’t born as, and the road is suddenly filled with unexpected difficulties.
Aline Lathrop’s new play “Merchild” is about how one family copes with the struggles inherent to discovering one’s eight-year-old son wants to be a girl. Or, more to the matter, believes himself to be a girl.
Terra (Lia D. Mortensen) and Clay (Malcolm Callan) are married, living relatively successful and contented lives together with their teenage daughter, Rhea (Stella Martin), and their son, Adam (Peyton Shaffer, a young lady five years older than her character). As academicians, Terra and Clay tend to be on the more liberal side of life in many regards, including having swapped some traditional family roles (Terra is the breadwinner; Clay the stay-at-home parent). When Adam is disappointed at not being chosen to play Ariel in a ballet production of “The Little Mermaid,” his parents assume their child is gay. They support the boy being his own person, even if that means role-playing being a girl. That is, until a violent attack at the hands of some neighborhood miscreants prompts them to take measures to protect their child.
Director Ann Filmer digs deeply into the script and harvests a complex mix of humor and pathos. There aren’t easy decisions or answers in this play, but it allows us to smile at life’s difficulties while never losing sight of its gravity. Filmer, with help from Joanna Iwanicka’s set design, creates a world that is both comfortably familiar and unsettling at the same time. That is largely accomplished by a giant slab of rock that dominates the stage, but the off-kilter atmosphere is reinforced continually through the characters played by Ed Dzialo. Dzialo portrays all the other characters no matter their gender or orientation. Adam’s world is in flux at all times. Through thoughtful staging and skillful acting, this production succeeds in telling a complex tale beautifully. (Christopher Kidder-Mostrom)
16th Street Theater, 6420 16th Street, Berwyn, (708)795-6704, 16thstreettheater.org, $18. Through October 17.