Aaron Fricke has called Boston “my second home.”. The 50 year old gay rights activist may now be based in San Francisco, but the Providence native was proud to attend the recent Boston Children’s Theatre world premiere at the Boston Center for the Arts of “Reflections of Rock Lobster”as its guest of honor. In 1980 Fricke wrote about the bullying and gay-bashing he endured at Cumberland High in an autobiographical book called “Reflections of a Rock Lobster: A Story about Growing Up Gay.” He also focused on the suit he brought to District Court for the right to escort his boyfriend Paul Gilbert to the school prom. BCT executive director Burgess Clark, adapting that book for the stage , has created a timely play as memorable for its moments of affecting humor as for its unflinching candor.
At the pre-opening ceremony upstairs at the Calderwood Pavilion, Fricke declared that “It (the play)’s not just my story but also the story of the bullied and the bullies.” He later collaborated with his father Walter on a book entitled “Sudden Strangers: The Story of a Gay Son and His Father, “ published after the latter’s passing in 1989. Fricke is currently at work on a book based on three decades of correspondence on gay rights issues and general tolerance. Fricke’s on-going efforts have become an inspiration for not only BCT but also local and state leaders.
Boston mayor Thomas Menino , in a playbill message, praised BCT – now celebrating its 60th anniversary, for addressing bullying and delivering a “message of acceptance and tolerance. “ Support for the production has also come from actress Susan Sarandon and actor Gavin Creel (the Broadway revival of “Hair”). At press time , Governor Duval Patrick was reported to be preparing his own statement in support of the company’s efforts.
The results at the Calderwood prove that those efforts must have been considerable. “Reflections of a Rock Lobster” artfully brings together both the torment and the ultimate triumph of Aaron Fricke’s struggle for personal and public validation as a young gay man. Clark’s adaptation builds to three distinct moments of truth for Fricke-the first embracing his identity and un-closeted affection with Paul; the second, the decision to bring suit against his school ; and the third, the moment when Aaron and Paul dance freely at the prom. Director Clark handles all three moments with understated eloquence. Ian Shain captures Aaron’s early diffidence about coming out and his contrasting self-confidence as he begins to express his love for Paul. Shain convincingly moves from soft shell crustracean to rock lobster-hence the title of the book and the play. Shain also does well with Aaron’s deep love and respect for his parents. Felix Teich makes a scene-stealing swaggering first entrance in sunglasses and leather jacket. Paul can throw caution to the wind but also provides Aaron with unique mentoring about self-esteem and empowerment. Teich evokes this complexity from the start in a performance that is nothing short of brilliant.
Also noteworthy are Paul Plum and Richard Snee (married in real life) as Aaron’s parents. While family scenes sometimes take on touches of sitcom face-offs , their performances always find the truth of the situations. Plum brings together Loretta Fricke’s deep warmth and her concern about public perceptions. Snee evokes Walter Fricke’s support for his son as well as his somewhat stoic demeanor. Sophia Pekowsky has both the nerdiness and kindness of Aaron’s injury-prone friend Claudia Cooper. Sean Crossley is properly nasty as gay-bashing ringleader Bill Quillar. who kicks Aaron punishingly-credit Adam McLean’s strong fight choreography. Other standouts in a very solid and large cast are Douglass Bowen-Flynn’s disturbingly cynical principal Richard Lynch-who condones bullying and homophobia-and Allan Mayo’s sharply timed wisecracking observer John Delaney from the National Gay Task Force.
Clark’s informative and heartfelt adaptation has as much to say about living in a shell as it does about adopting a position of strength about life and love. Matthew Haber’s striking backdrop projections recall the graduates of Aaron’s class-bullied and bullies. They also point to the sadly continuing epidemic of bullying and gay-bashing –from earlier victims such as Harvey Milk and Matthew Shephard to the 2009 suicide of an 11 year old student named Carl Joseph Walker, constantly taunted by anti-gay peers.
Along with BCT’s memorable earlier revivals of “The Diary of Anne Frank” and “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Frick’s story makes a rich trio of plays that the company calls “a series about history and justice through the eyes of a child.” There is serious talk of “Reflections of Rock Lobster” stagings throughout the country. Fricke’s insights and Clark’s admirable BCT play are teaching invaluable lessons about respect and understanding that should be required curricula everywhere.