Sunday, July 14, 2024

Stacey Raymond and Petey Gibson in “Becoming a Man.” (Photo: Nile Scott Studios and Maggie Hall)

Life comes with changes, and we have to wonder: When we change, can the people we love come with us? That’s the question “Becoming a Man” seeks to answer through a trans man’s story playing through March 10 at the American Repertory Theater’s Loeb Drama Center.

The autobiographical play depicts three interwoven vignettes in the journey of P. Carl (Petey Gibson).

The first is Carl’s decision to begin transitioning at 50, describing his top surgery and choice to begin taking testosterone, moments of gender euphoria such as the first time he gets called “sir” and the ability to use the men’s locker room with ease. In an especially heartwarming scene, Carl, finally comfortable in his own body, explains the freedom he felt swimming for the first time in the “right” bathing suit. 

The play is not all uplifting: It also takes us through Carl’s at times visceral experiences with depression and PTSD, and Gibson is especially excellent in those tough moments.

Polly (Stacey Raymond), the embodiment of Carl’s “former self” as a queer woman, is the subject of the second story. Carl tells it, but Polly pops up to remind him of the details in dialogue that produced some of the play’s most poignant moments. (“Does anyone ever know what to do with their past selves?” asks Carl’s friend Nathan, played by Cody Sloan.)

The third story is about the people in Carl’s life – everyone from Nathan, who is also trans, to a man he meets at a bar who talks to him like he’s one of the guys. Much of this story centers around Lynette, Carl’s partner, who is queer and started dating him when he was Polly. “I miss being queer!” she laments at one point. It’s funny, but raises important questions about queerness and bodies that include Carl but go beyond him. Carl and Lynette are at odds for much of the play, as they struggle to navigate their relationship (“What’s my part in this new life of yours?” she asks) and especially when Lynette is faced with a uterine cancer diagnosis she feels he can’t understand. In the end, Lynette’s commitment to Carl left me feeling hopeful and inspired. Carl’s relationships with his mother and father were sad yet honest, and the bond he shared with Nathan as they both transitioned was beautiful.

The vignettes felt at times disorganized in moving us through time and space without much warning. Collectively, they were moving – a lot of suffering, a lot of joy.  There were several moments funny in a crass kind of way, like when Carl’s mother, suffering from dementia, sees him and exclaims, “Polly, I like this beard!” or when Lynette and Nathan make fun of Carl’s sneaker collection as worthy of a middle-school boy. The humor helps offset heavier topics. The acting was solid across the board, and these characters felt extraordinarily real.

The play was followed by Act II, a brief community discussion in which the audience could share moments that resonated with them. Hearing trans audience members share stories from their own lives was a nice way to close out the play, and their experiences complemented “Becoming a Man.” Many of them highlighted the little things – like being able to wear the right swimsuit.

“Things that seem so simple are so impactful,” one person said. 

  • “Becoming a Man,” by P. Carl and directed by Diane Paulus and P. Carl. Presented by American Repertory Theater’s at the Loeb Mainstage, 64 Brattle St., Harvard Square, Cambridge, through March 10.

This post was updated Feb. 26, 2024, to delete a misheard line of dialogue.