Review: The turmoil of ‘The Toughest Boy in Philadelphia’

 K.O. Del Marcelle (left) as

K.O. Del Marcelle (left) as "The Toughest Boy in Philadelphia" and Michelle Pauls, in the Iron Age Theatre production. (Photo courtesy of John Doyle)

The suffragettes of the early 20th century were looking for political emancipation, they weren’t looking for Betty Friedan and women’s libertion. And the lesbians of the early 20th century? We can assume they were looking only to be able to be themselves. (They wouldn’t have found much comfort from Friedan, in any case.) In the new play called “The Toughest Boy in Philadelphia,” which appears to establish some relationship between suffragettes, lesbians and feminism, all this is confusing and confused.

Philadelphia-based playwright Andrea Kennedy Hart’s “Toughest Boy,” in a world premiere from Iron Age Theatre, mixes suffragettes and lesbians into a plot with some points of light, but it’s generally cloudy. Piano rags, a music-hall entertainer and the inclusion of suffragettes take us into a plot derived from a true Philly story, set between 1913 and 1923. It’s about an Ohio kid named Florence, who would rather be known as Jack. She can sucker-punch guys to oblivion, and wants to live as a male.

Her absentee mother does, in fact, live as a male – on stage, where she’s a male impersonator, dressing as a man and singing in a phony British accent. Mom has left Florence at home to be raised by the kid’s grandfather, a kindly character who – unlike the rest of society and the laws that support it – wants his grandchild to grow up feeling happy in her skin. They move to Philadelphia, which they believe is more liberal in these matters, and Florence lives as Jack and becomes an underground chief in the tough-guy world of the Irish mob. 

That world begins to come apart. Jack has an unawares girlfriend working for a leading suffragette who fires her for associating with toughs – is there an irony we should understand here? Jack himself ends up institutionalized and in the care of a psychiatrist who believes that homosexuality is a “sexual inversion” of misbehavior that can be treated with mind games. (If you thought this sort of thing was in the past, consider that even today only a few states ban therapy programs promising to “convert” or “cure” homosexuals, particularly juveniles.)

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Whew! – all these themes seem to exist in their own universes: suffragettes, gay-curious youngsters, singing impersonators, mothers who give up mothering, a homophobic medical system, Irish street gangs. Plus, the plot’s time frame zig-zags back and forth in a series of more than 20 short disorienting scenes.

Throw in a “slang glossary” in Iron Age Theatre’s program that defines for you a “sap” as a fool, a “joint” as an establishment and a “skirt” as an attractive female, and you might think you’re suspected of knowing less than nothing. (Yet even with a wealth of school-bookish dramaturgy appearing in the program notes, one scene is labeled with a spelling no one accepted back then, and almost no one accepts now: “Judgement.”)

“Toughest Boy” asks a lot of an audience without giving much help. This is underscored by a final scene in which two figures stand stage-front in shadow, so dark the night I saw the show that I had no hint of who they are or why they’re there. And the feel of the production isn’t helped by John Doyle’s utilitarian but drab stage design of white screens with black curtains hung messily around. Doyle, who heads Iron Age, directs the show.

K. O. DelMarcelle plays Florence/Jack as a kid and as a young adult with an educated defiance, and manages to convince us that the character’s wide vocabulary and high-style sense of argument is natural. Most of the other performers – all women in both male and female roles – play multiple parts, and Susan Giddings is especially effective as the know-it-all psychiatrist who knows very little. Michelle Pauls is the cross-dressed stage personality, and she performs songs that dot the show but, again, don’t seem to relate to anything in it.

_“The Toughest Boy in Philadelphia,” produced by Iron Age Theatre, runs through June 29 at Luna Theater, on Eighth Street between South and Bainbridge Streets.

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