By J. Scott Hill
Christian Choate lived much of his short, tortured life in a trailer park in the Black Oak neighborhood of Gary, Indiana. He was abused — kept in a dog cage, routinely and severely beaten, and starved — by his father and stepmother until he finally died in 2009 at the age of thirteen. Christian Choate’s body was hastily buried in a shallow pit and covered with cement, a grave in which he lay for two years before anyone cared enough to go looking for him. Playwright MT Cozzola’s new show Boy Small, currently being produced by The Fine Print Theatre Company at Red Tape Theatre, is loosely based on Christian Choate’s life and death.
What works best in MT Cozzola’s script is her ear for dialog: she has a fundamental understanding of how people talk to one another and how certain kinds of talk lead to other kinds of talk. She also cleverly combines all non-family members, “Outsiders,” into a role for a single actress, thereby driving home the insular existence forced upon the Christian Choate-like character who is simply referred to in the program as “Boy.” There is narration that is spoken by the Boy after his death, à la Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones; the narration is eloquent, but is written at an educational level far beyond that which the Boy could have attained during his brief lifetime. This shift lets the audience somewhat off the emotional hook, where we should be firmly impaled for the entirety of Boy Small.
The choice of venue is disturbingly appropriate. The performance space at Red Tape Theatre, set up as a small theatre-in-the-round, is claustrophobic: the audience is right on top of the actors. The dog cage, in which the Boy is forced to spend much of his time, is hauled onstage just as the show opens. The constant and ominous presence of that cage throughout the show renders the rest of the set incidental.
The part of the Boy is played by Stephen Cefalu, Jr. Cefalu does well in a role for which he is clearly too old. His posture and speech patterns are authentically adolescent, but he still looks to be at least twice the age of the Boy. Through no fault of his own, Cefalu’s apparent age, much like the Boy’s highly literate passages of narration, at times undermines the audience’s willing suspension of disbelief. Again, this seems like a clear attempt to give the audience some emotional breathing room, where we should be breathless. In clear view beyond these obstacles, however, is a thoughtful and provocative performance by an enormously talented young actor.
Although Taryn Wood, who plays Sissy, is also clearly too old for her role, she is either less too old, or just more youthful; Wood’s choices for Sissy’s physicality, voice, and manner place her squarely within the first half of high school. Deanna Moffitt plays all of the Outsiders with the perfect paradox of nosiness and apathy. Cat Dean plays Sherry, the Boy and Sissy’s stepmother, as a pathetic sort of ineffectual leech who would rather glom onto a piece of trash alpha male poseur than make her own way in the world.
Dad, played by Malcolm Callan, is a duplicitous, hateful, violent piece of scum. Callan is a fine actor of seeming unlimited depth who puts an all too human face on this soulless monster. Dad, as viewed through the lens of Callan’s portrayal, isn’t just some raging maniac, but a man who is in constant flux, a man of deep inconsistencies of personality and temperament for which he has made his son the scapegoat.
Boy Small is an ugly show, as the subject matter absolutely demands. Boy Small may go light on some of the terrible details of what Christian Choate had to endure, it may allow the audience a bit too much emotional detachment, but, then again, it is difficult to gauge exactly how much more gut-wrenching this show could be before no one could bear to watch it.
(“Boy Small,” presented by The Fine Print Theatre Company, runs through September 22 at Red Tape Theatre, St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Second Floor, 621 W. Belmont, Chicago. 312-953-7966)
Boy Small production photos by Gretchen Kelley.
* Visit Theatre In Chicago for more information on this show. Boy Small – Red Tape Theatre – St. Peter’s Episcopal Church – Chicago