One of the risks dramatists confront when writing about civil rights is that they will become so intent on making a point that they forget to make a play.
Burgess Clark didn’t forget.
His “Reflections of a Rock Lobster’’ is a lively and incisive adaptation of the 1981 book by Aaron Fricke, chronicling the legal battle Fricke waged, as a high school student in Cumberland, R.I., to win the right to bring a male date to his school’s prom in the spring of 1980.
“Rock Lobster,’’ now receiving a world-premiere production by Boston Children’s Theatre under Clark’s direction, is appropriately unflinching in its condemnation of the antigay attitudes and behavior of that time - and our time, too.
But that message is embedded in a story that is engrossing, touching, and frequently funny, if seldom subtle. Clark, the executive artistic director at BCT, deserves credit for challenging his audience with tough-minded subject matter and trying to expand the definition of “children’s theater.’’ (In movie terms, “Rock Lobster’’ would be considered PG-13 fare, and BCT recommends parental discretion with regard to younger children.)
Since the cast largely consists of students between the ages of 14 and 19, there is, inevitably, a widely varying level of acting proficiency. In the crucial role of young Aaron, however, 18-year-old high school senior Ian Shain, of Hamilton, gives an exceptional, many-shaded performance. Another star is born in the person of Brookline High School student Sophia Pekowsky, 16, who is hilarious as Aaron’s accident-prone, hypochondriacal, and lugubrious friend, Claudia, a character invented by Clark.
Shain’s Aaron projects a wry self-awareness. He is able to grasp the absurdity of antigay prejudice even as it turns his life into a living hell of bullying, beatings, and harassment. Every walk by this teenager down a locker-lined school corridor is a journey into a jungle; the sequences where Aaron is tormented by his epithet-spewing classmates make for wrenching viewing. (Even more devastating are the many photos, projected on-screen late in the play, of gay people - among them Matthew Shepard - who lost their lives due to homophobia.)
Tentative about his sexual identity, and isolated at school, Aaron is an object of puzzlement to his parents, played by the estimable husband-and-wife team of Richard Snee and Paula Plum. “You have such a strange sense of humor. Especially for a boy,’’ Aaron’s mother tells him.
Aaron’s sense of humor is what keeps him sane - that, and his dogged sense of right and wrong. He takes the first step on the path that will lead to national notoriety when he becomes involved with Paul, who is played by Felix Teich, 18, a student at Brookline High School. In sunglasses, black boots, and a black leather jacket, Paul is everything Aaron is not: cool, confident, assertive. When their first meeting is interrupted by a bunch of knuckle-dragging classmates who shout verbal abuse at the pair, Paul says to Aaron: “Excuse me, I’ve got to engage in some male posturing,’’ then gives it right back to them, insult for scatological insult.
It is Paul whom Aaron eventually invites to the prom. But the high school principal (Doug Bowen-Flynn) turns thumbs down. He is a menacing yet ludicrous figure, indulging in apocalyptic rhetoric, accusing a teen who wants nothing more than to bring his boyfriend to the prom of attempting to “destroy the reputation and character of this community.’’ When Aaron files a lawsuit with the help of a gay activist and disabled Vietnam veteran played by Allan Mayo, a media frenzy ensues, fracturing the relationship between Aaron and his mother, who cannot abide the spotlight the case throws on their family.
Much of the second act of “Rock Lobster’’ takes place in a courtroom, where the public and private dimensions of Aaron’s struggle are clearly spelled out: what it could mean for gay rights if he wins, and what he has gone through along the way. And when the prom finally happens, Clark delivers a denouement that carries a final, low-key message that this is not Armageddon, but a simple, long-overdue triumph of common sense.
On opening night, the real Aaron Fricke took a bow during the curtain call, to prolonged applause. At a moment when a certain national radio talk-show host had somehow managed to reach new lows of vileness, the presence of Fricke, and the fine play Burgess Clark has written about him, were heartening reminders that the bullies and the bigots don’t always win.
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.