History moves in mysterious ways. While the so-called “great men” of the world stage take credit for momentous events, it is often ordinary individuals who, tapping into unforeseen courage, shift the axis of our universe.
Dr. John Fryer, as Ain Gordon’s “217 Boxes of Dr. Henry Anonymous” movingly testifies, was one such man. In 1972, at the annual conference of the American Psychiatric Assn., he donned a rubber mask and an oversized tuxedo and, speaking into a distorting microphone, announced: “I am a homosexual, I am a psychiatrist.”
The disguise was necessary because at the time homosexuality was classified as a mental illness. Fryer risked his career for the sake of his benighted profession and for everyone who was hurt by the pathologizing of their identities.
He wore a literal mask, as gays had no choice but to figuratively adopt in their everyday lives, only to reveal his truth to his colleagues. The following year homosexuality was removed from the official list of mental illnesses, though the diagnosis was not nixed entirely until the mid-1980s. A tall, heavyset man sweltering in a crazy costume in a Dallas hotel ballroom thrust psychiatry into the modern era and, in so doing, lent dignity and momentum to the LGBTQ civil rights struggle still being waged today.
Three-time Obie winner Gordon reflects on this story in a work of documentary theater that’s filtered through the imagination of a writer and director less interested in Wikipedia bullet points than in thematic connections and emotional crosscurrents. Presented by the Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA at the Freud Playhouse for three performances this weekend, “217 Boxes of Dr. Henry Anonymous” came into existence through an alliance with the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, where Fryer’s archives are housed.
Fryer doesn’t himself appear as a character in a work that is divided into three monologues, delivered by figures who knew him at different points in his life. But the clown-like image of his powerful testimony as Dr. Henry Anonymous, a pseudonym as outlandish as his getup, serves as projected background for a production that is fascinated by what history chooses to obscure and reveal.
First up is Alfred A. Gross (played with fluty flamboyance by Derek Lucci), who, as an executive secretary for a charity in New York, primarily assisted homosexual men “in trouble with the law.” He introduces himself to all the modern “dear ones” who have gathered to learn about this curious chapter of gay history before qualifying that, in the closeted era in which he colorfully emerged, he was a “warrior behind the drapes.”
Alfred, born 1895, enlisted the help of Fryer to his cause, and his impressions of the crusading psychiatrist help place this inadequately known gay figure into context. Secrecy was the inescapable reality for homosexuals for much of the 20th century. Referring to himself as the “Cro-Magnon of homosexual freedom,” Alfred delineates what life was like for those who shared “Our Problem.”
“No role model to look to,” he exclaims from the aggrieved depths of the forgotten past. “No history to grow from. We were building the structure on which you now are — our vision is what enables you to now see where we were shortsighted.”
The second monologue is from Katherine M. Luder (portrayed with searing eccentricity by Laura Esterman), who was Fryer’s personal secretary for 24 years after she was forced into retirement by her previous employer. She started the year after the famous mask incident, so her account continues Fryer’s story beyond the event that turned him into a historical footnote.
Her portrait of Fryer, with whom she says she was a “little, intensely, utterly platonically, very — married,” builds to a climax in which she recalls the files she was asked to remove of patients in the early days of the AIDS epidemic who would no longer be coming back. Client privilege prevented more explicit information, but a tragic understanding developed between the psychiatrist and his devoted assistant.
As an unmarried woman with outré thrift store taste, Katherine can’t help but sympathetically identify with these fragile outsiders, whose files were sent prematurely to the graveyard “cabinet.” In what is the production’s most stirring moment, she pays her respects to their individuality while respecting their privacy by incanting the numbers assigned to their cases stored in 17 of the archival trove of boxes.
The third and final monologue brings Fryer’s father, Ercel (played with skittish paternal warmth by Ken Marks), back from the grave. He has returned to better understand his son, who left his home state of Kentucky as a young man for a life his family could never fathom and conveniently kept in a half-light.
The word “homosexual” is difficult for Ercel to say, but he takes pride in his son’s conscience and bravery and wants the world to know that in the few letters he exchanged with John, he signed them “Love, Daddy.” “I tried to be better than I was built,” he somberly admits.
Not having lived to see his son become an incognito hero, he wants to both understand him as a man and defend him against anyone who doesn’t recognize that he was an ordinary person who found the strength to do something extraordinary when it needed to be done. Ercel doesn’t let us off the hook: He asks us to question whether we would choose to find the wherewithal within ourselves to answer history’s call.
Gordon’s staging is abstract in its presentation. Nick Ryckert’s attractively spare production design leaves the performers wandering amid the cartons of Fryer’s life and work.
The writing, elliptical and at moments elusive, is puzzle-like in its approach. Gordon seems wary of taking a direct narrative line. The story of Fryer is only flickeringly told, but by the end he and his ongoing legacy are emotionally unmasked.