Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Superman Becomes Lois Lane
History Theatre
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of The Real Life Adventures of Jimmy de las Rosas, After the Fires, Daddy Long Legs, and The White Card


Sean Michael Dooley, Freya Richman,
and Jamie White Jachimiec

Photo by Rick Spaulding
During the 1970s and early 1980s, Bob Sylvester was very well known among movers and shakers in Saint Paul. The former Peace Corps volunteer and small-town journalist had become a force in local politics, serving on the Saint Paul City Council, including two years as its president, and going on to head the Housing and Redevelopment Authority. After leaving political office he became a successful investment banker, but also kept his finger on the pulse of civic life. Then, Sylvester announced that he was leaving—not leaving public life, but leaving his own life. In his place, Susan Kimberly arose, the name she chose as the woman who emerged after Sylvester went public in 1983 about his desire to live as a woman; he followed up with sex reassignment surgery in 1984. After a period of adjustment, Susan returned to public life as an aide for Mayor George Latimer, eventually becoming deputy mayor to Norm Coleman, the highest non-elected government post in Saint Paul.

This story, its origins and aftermath, is told in Superman Becomes Lois Lane, written by Susan Kimberly and enjoying its world premiere on the stage of History Theatre. I'll say up front that this is a very good play, delving into a life experience few in its audience are likely to have been through. It reveals the inner dialogue, much of it torturous, between the gender identity assigned to the body and the gender identity imbedded in the mind. Both of these identities may be present a birth, but the physical body is the one parents, extended family, doctors, and all the world sees, and the natural assumption is that it tells the whole story. Superman Becomes Lois Lane provides us with ample evidence that there is often much more to the story.

The play opens in 1983, with two people in a car as it careens off the side of a mountain in Montana into the Gallatin River. The two people are Susan (Freya Richman) and Bob (Sean Michael Dooley). These characters appear throughout the play, often at the same time, shedding light on the reality of both personas alive simultaneously in one greatly conflicted body. By this time Bob had adopted Susan as an alter-ego, the name he used when he dressed as a woman, including going out in public, while maintaining the name Bob and male identity in his professional and his personal life. Somehow, in what seems like a miracle, Bob and Susan's car comes to rest in a safe spot. It is a moment of epiphany for Bob, who fully understands now that, after years of harboring thoughts of suicide, he wants to live, or more accurately, he wants to allow Susan to live.

Bob married Mae Seeley about ten years before this. He had been open with Mae about his need to dress in woman's clothing, but did not reveal, and did not yet recognize, that his true and undeniable need was to live fully as a woman. Mae is presented as a constant source of support, though we also see bouts of anger, the pain she bears seeing Bob dressed as a woman, intrusions Susan has on her sexual relationship with her husband, and sad realization that their marriage must come to an end.

We follow them into therapy sessions, some of which are vehicles to go back in time, such as Bob's small-town childhood, where by the age of three he was dressing himself as a girl and declared to his mother, "I am a little girl." From the age of six, when Bob's mother sternly forbid him to ever dress as a girl again, to his mid-thirties, that little girl lived a life of secrecy and shame, even as Bob rose to high levels of achievement and popularity. It was because of his visible civic life that Bob Sylvester felt he had to go public with his decision to become Susan Kimberly. There was no chance that a person as much in the public eye as he was could have a sex-change operation and not have it be noticed. He wanted to get ahead of the story, rather than wait for the inevitability of it leaking out.

Well into Superman Becomes Lois Lane, Susan Kimberly explains the title. She tells us that Bob never thought of himself as a superhero, nor did anyone else. But she did. Bob, she tells us, always protected Susan, always had her back. And it was an act of extraordinary courage for him to choose to lose himself so that Susan might fully live in the world.

For all her other accomplishments, this is Kimberly's first time at bat as a playwright, and she proves to be a very good one, capturing Susan, Bob and Mae's torrent of feelings, conveying a complicated series of events that ran the course of the transition, and smoothly gliding between changes in time and place. A scene involving exploration of a past life while under hypnosis risks straining credulity, but is written with enough conviction and clarity to pull through.

Director Laura Leffler handles the many transitions adeptly, and uses an expansive set, with tiered levels of playing areas, to hold our attention through the actors' constant movement. She also guides an ensemble of three actors who play doctors, therapists, co-workers, bartenders, airport habitu├ęs, and Bob's mother who fully flesh out the story.

Freya Richman gives an astonishing performance as Susan, veering between defensive—especially when she is still sharing a single body with Bob—to defiant, openly expressing the pain she endures, the uncertainties she harbors, and the triumphs she celebrates. Sean Michael Dooley is equally winning as Bob, conveying the tension he experienced living a false life, the anguish he felt in his marriage, all the while maintaining his love for Mae, and his total commitment to Susan.

As Mae, Jamie White Jachimiec persuasively shows us both her compassion and sense of betrayal. When Susan finally states that it is time to divorce, it is Mae who wants to slow things down and discuss it. It is a sign of Jachimiec's sensitive performance that we believe, in spite of the obvious obstacles to remaining married, that Mae still hopes to make it work. Casey E. Lewis, Sam Landman and Melanie Wehrmacher form the ensemble. All three excel at creating markedly different characters, with a great assist from costume designers Andrea Gross and Barb Portinga and from vocal coach Foster Johns.

The History Theatre stage seems to have expanded for this production, with Michael Hoover designing the tiered platforms and furnishings that bring to mind sleek mid-century towers housing government, investment firm, and therapist offices. Video projections designed by Kathy Maxwell, and James Eischen's lighting further enhance the production, while Katherine Horowitz contributes sound design and original music.

A question comes up in the course of the play as to whether Bob Sylvester created Susan Kimberly, or Susan Kimberly created Bob Sylvester. I was deeply moved by the answer that emerged, but you'll have to see the play for yourself if you want to know what that is, or to learn the reason that Susan chose Kimberly as her new surname.

True to its mission, History Theatre has found an important nugget of Minnesota's history and with a greatly talented playwright, creative team, and cast, transformed that nugget into compelling theater presented in achingly human terms. While the setting is Saint Paul, growing national awareness that gender cannot be understood in simple binary terms and the call from the transgender community and its allies make this a story that would have value anywhere in our fifty states. This is the kind of work that makes History Theatre an essential part of the Twin Cities' bountiful theater scene.

Superman Becomes Lois Lane runs through March 1, 2020, at at History Theatre, 30 East 10th Street, Saint Paul MN. Tickets: $20.00 - $53.00; seniors (age 60+) $30.00 - $43.00; under 30 - $30.00; students $15.00. For tickets and information call 651-292-4323 or visit historytheatre.com.

Playwright: Susan Kimberly; Director: Laura Leffler; Scenic Design: Michael Hoover; Costume Design: Andrea Gross and Barb Portinga; Lighting Design: James Eischen; Sound Designer and Composer: Katherine Horowitz; Video Design: Kathy Maxwell; Video Technician: C. Andrew Mayer; Properties Design: Lee Christiansen; Vocal Coach: Foster Johns; Dramaturg: Catherine Charles Hammond; Technical Director: Gunther Gullickson; Production Manager/Stage Manager: Wayne Hendricks; Assistant Director: Sophie Peyton; Assistant Stage Manager: Kate Sandvik.

Cast: Sean Michael Dooley (Bob), Jamie White Jachimiec (Mae), Sam Landman (ensemble), Casey E. Lewis (ensemble), Freya Richman (Susan), Melanie Wehrmacher (ensemble).


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