Review: ‘Wild Boy’ (**)

by Mark Johnson

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This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)
This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

Oliver Goldstick’s “Wild Boy” cannot be faulted for lack of earnestness. Dealing with autism, and specifically how people around those living with the disorder can have their entire lives thrown out of balance, the play is constantly progressive and compassionate toward its characters. But, perhaps it is too sincere. By refusing to bare any fangs, the work becomes anemic and rather numbing.  Dragon Productions Theatre Company does its damnedest to make a go of it, with solid work by an extremely committed cast.

The play, based on Paul Collins’s memoir, “Not Even Wrong,” contains dueling narratives. One focuses on a modern family attempting to raise the severely autistic Morgan. The other tells the true story of Peter the Wild Boy, a man who served as a sort of “pet” in King George I’s royal court. Some have believed Peter the Wild Boy was autistic, though nowadays he is commonly thought to have suffered from Pitt-Hopkins Syndrome. The concurrent stories raise questions about attitudes toward the disabled over the course of history, both in how they have changed and how they have remained the same; mostly the play is interested in family relationships and how people who love each other deal with adversity.

This production of “Wild Boy” is especially notable for the work of Olivia Haas as Morgan’s mother, Jennifer Collins. Her performance, one of the years’ best,  is  laced with delicacy, strength, insecurity, and raw, desperate humanity. She resists every urge to overplay her scenes, never attempting to steal attention for herself. It takes an extraordinarily assured actress to look, act, and feel so naturally unassured onstage.

Ryan O’Donnell is very good as Morgan’s father, Paul Collins. O’Donnell balances pragmatism and despondency with ease. The rest of the company members, each of whom plays multiple roles, are roundly effective, balancing their characters with specificity and finesse.

Nevertheless, as Hamlet has taught seasoned theater goers, “the play’s the thing,” and it’s truly unfortunate that Oliver Goldstick’s play is lifeless and uninteresting. Dual narratives are extremely difficult to pull off—both stories need to be uniquely engrossing on their own and should feel purposeful in their co-presentation. In this case, the modern-day storyline, in spite of its lack of bite, occasionally gains a bit of life. But the events set in 18th century England are mostly pointless and extremely dull. It’s a shame the play includes this second narrative, as it might be more interesting focused solely on the contemporary plot. Alas, that narrative is never adequately developed, as it is constantly interrupted by period-piece tedium.

Every member of this production’s talented cast deserves to be seen, but audiences might want to wait for a better play showcasing their talents. It’s a shame they are stuck in this work, which probably should have stayed in the bottom drawer.

“Wild Boy” continues at The Dragon Theatre through August 21. For further information, click here

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Rating: **
(For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.
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“Wild Boy” by Oliver Goldstick, based on “Not Even Wrong” by Paul Collins. Produced by Dragon Productions Theatre Company. Director, Sound Designer: Ken Sonkin. Stage Manager: Jesse Ploog. Set Designer, Lighting Designer: Joshua McDermott. Costume Designer: Brooke Jennings. Properties Designer: Emily James. Dialect Coach, Dramaturge: Liz Coy.

Cast:

Paul Collins: Ryan O’Donnell. Jennifer Collins: Olivia Haas. Morgan, Peter: Johnathan Tierney. Dr. Rapp, Paul’s Mom, Alice Titchbourne, Mrs. Snub: Mary Lou Torre. Ivy Tate, Ann Brett, Caroline, Ashley, Shopper: Isabel Siragusa. Marc, King George I, Schoolmaster, Dr. Arbuthnot, Brian, Blackthorp: John Stephen King. Chad, Kurtz, George II, Trout, Mr. Snub, Headmaster, Fenn: Bryan Moriarty.

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