'Merchild' explores one child's gender identity crisis

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By Doug Deuchler

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Aline Lathrop, their 16th Street Theater's current playwright-in-residence, has a very beautiful play running right now called Merchild. The Jeff-recommended production is crisp and touching, and raises issues about gender identity crises among children. It's an engrossing, strongly directed evening that runs an hour and 45 minutes with one intermission. The acting is top-notch, especially the juvenile performer who plays the title role.

 Known for their edgy premieres of exciting new works, this time Berwyn's 16th Street Theater illustrates the conflicts experienced within a family raising an 8-year-old child who believes she's a girl, despite physically being a boy. Merchild shows that even when parents want to be supportive and progressive, this situation can be very painful and difficult to navigate. 

 Director Ann Filmer is insightful, enabling the humor within much of the well-written dialogue to balance some of the difficult and more painful emotion. 

 Bruce Jenner's recent transition to Caitlyn Jenner has put a huge spotlight on being transgender. But much confusion and misinformation continues. Treatment, which traditionally labels "trans" youth as having a "mental disorder," involves the sort of conversion therapy once used to try to "turn" gays into heterosexuals.

 Peyton Shaffer, one of the most touching and talented young actors I've seen, plays smart and kind Adam, an 8-year-old son who is causing conflict within his family. Adam's middle-class, liberal parents assume he's gay, are accepting of that and seek counseling. But he's not homosexual. Adam sees himself as a girl who happens to have a penis. 

 Transgender children, of course, live in a different gender from the one they were given when they were born. Adam is called a boy when he was born but feels strongly that he's really a girl. Sexual identity is about who you are attracted to. Gender identity is about how you identity — male or female. Assigning a child's sex, of course, is usually based on the appearance of external genitalia.

 Adam fantasizes about being a mermaid and marrying a prince. He retreats into the "Little Mermaid" fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen and dreams of being Ariel, the title character in the Disney version. He's very disturbed and angered when he is not cast as Ariel in a school play. Adam even slips into dream interludes where he imagines that Eric (Will Crouse), his teenage sister's boyfriend, is a handsome prince who will marry him.

 The conflicts both the child and the parents experience are vividly presented. Clay (Malcolm Callan) and Terra (Lia Mortensen) want to do what's best for Adam but are frightened and perplexed. They live in Wilmette, not far from Lake Michigan. When their son has a violent encounter — a hate crime — with a pack of teen ruffians, the couple seeks help.

 Clay and Terra are loving parents. She is a successful administrator at a nearby university; he is a part-time adjunct professor, a mostly stay-at-home dad, and a would-be novelist who has never been able to sell one of his books. His wife is also his boss at the college. They are well-meaning but feel helpless.

 Children aren't always what parents expect or understand and in this case Clay and Terra endure conflict within their own relationship when they cannot agree on what approach to take to keep their child safe. 

 All the actors give solid performances but Mortensen is especially strong as she conveys the pressures of a contemporary successful woman who is also a parent struggling to stay on top of issues on the home front.

 Ed Dzialo is great playing a variety of subordinate roles, both male and female, from therapist to waitress. 

 Adam's 14-year-old sister, Rhea, is portrayed by Stella Martin. As is often the case with families where one child is having a challenge, the other one experiences difficulty keeping her balance, in this case while watching so much attention focused on her little brother. 

 The scenic design by Joanna Iwanicka includes a gigantic rocky island in the middle of the set. It's truly amazing although at times it seems to dominate or distract from smaller scenes. Yet because this seaside formation is so intricately tied with the mermaid theme, it's always present and never truly out of sight or out of mind, just like the transgender issues.

 Barry Bennett created the sound and the fine original music used in the production.

 The transgender topic has been getting much focus of late, but there is still such great confusion and often sad stories resulting from families' inability to fully grasp what's going on. Transgender youth have higher incidence of homelessness and suicide than their non-transgender peers. 

 Merchild is a strong piece of writing and an emotionally intense drama. It does not evolve like you might expect it to. In fact, the play really does not need to pause for an intermission. 

This production is very well done and though it's difficult material, it's not a bummer. It's a fine, enjoyable, memorable work. 

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