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Rock Lobster delivers timely message about bullying and gay bashing

Jules Becker
Rock Lobster delivers timely message about bullying and gay bashing
Wesley Gafney on the set of "Reflections of a Rock  Lobster" in front of his 1980 Cumberland Rhode Island High School yearbook picture. (Photo: Jonas Degen)

“Reflections of Rock Lobster” has turned into a warm reunion as well as an historic Boston Children’s Theatre (BCT) world premiere.

On one hand, the 60-year-old company is following up its forceful revival of “To Kill a Mockingbird” with a different but equal moving look at civil rights -this time dealing with bullying, gay bashing and homophobia. On the other, the staging -the first by an American children’s theater to tackle these subjects in a main stage production -has given Cumberland, R.I., class of 1980 students Wesley Gaffney, Shelley Morgan and Aaron Fricke the opportunity to come together in friendship and solidarity.

Fricke wrote about the bullying and gay bashing he endured at Cumberland High in an autobiographical book of the same name. Fricke also focused on the suit he bought for the right to escort his boyfriend Paul Gilbert to the school prom.

BCT executive director Burgess Clark, adapting his book for the stage, has created a timely play as memorable for its moments of affecting humor as for its unflinching candor. Gaffney, now a customer service representative and truck driver, recalled an Earth, Wind and Fire concert that Fricke also attended and spoke of hooking up with his classmate on Facebook.

During the BCT’s rehearsal period with directing Clark, Gaffney assisted the production with a Q and A session with the cast. Morgan contributed a copy of the 1980 yearbook. Projection designer Matthew Haber has complemented the vivid details of the play itself with backdrop blow-ups of the yearbook photos, in which Gaffney sports an afro.

At the pre-opening ceremony upstairs at the Calderwood, Fricke declared that “[The play] is not just my story but also the story of the bullied and the bullies.”

The now San Francisco-based author—who is working on a second book based in large part on correspondence over the three decades since the events at Cumberland High—called Boston his second home, and the Hub has clearly been supportive.

Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, in a playbill message, praised BCT for addressing bullying and delivering a “message of acceptance and tolerance.” At press time, Governor Deval 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.

Centered in Janie Howland’s school design set, the high school senior’s odyssey is chronicled largely on the steps and before the student lockers of Cumberland High. Clark’s adaptation strikingly builds to three distinct moments of truth for Fricke—the first embracing his identity and open affection with Paul; the second, the decision to bring suit against his school; and the third, the moment when Aaron and Paul dance arm-in-arm 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 crustacean 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 projections not only recall Aaron’s class but also point to the sadly continuing epidemic of bullying and homophobia.  

There is serious talk of “Reflections of Rock Lobster” stagings throughout the country. Fricke’s insights and Clark’s admirable play are teaching invaluable lessons about respect and understanding that should be required curricula everywhere.

Reflections of a Rock Lobster, Boston Children’s Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Wimberly Theatre, Boston Center for the Arts, through March 11. 617-424-6634, x222 or