History Theatre developed “Superman Becomes Lois Lane” in its Raw Stages program and the play still feels a little undercooked.
It’s easy to see why the theater was attracted to Susan Kimberly’s story. Born Bob Sylvester, Kimberly was a mover and shaker in St. Paul, rising to president of its City Council. After a shift to the private sector, Kimberly. then in her 40s, announced plans to have surgery to confirm the gender she had been conscious of since the age of 3. Eventually, she returned to public service, as deputy mayor under Norm Coleman in 1998 and in his office when he became a U.S. senator.
Those duties and many more are included in Kimberly’s bio in the “Superman Becomes Lois Lane” program, which notably lists no theatrical credits. Kimberly says elsewhere in the program that she’s been working on this play for some time, but it has to be incredibly hard to have enough perspective to turn your own life into a play and “Lois Lane” suffers from trying to cram all of Kimberly’s jam-packed life into a couple of hours.
The best parts of “Lois Lane” feature Bob (Sean Michael Dooley), Susan (Freya Richman) and Mae (Jamie White Jachimiec), the woman who was, in a sense, married to both of them. How these three (well, technically, two, although the play often has Bob and Susan play off each other as they navigate their shared identity) figured out their difficult and drastically changing relationships is fascinating, life-affirming stuff.
As played by the warm, empathetic Jachimiec, Mae emerges as a figure of heroic calm, particularly when we learn, very late in the play, that Bob had confided his questions about his own identity soon after they met in their 20s. It would have been interesting to know that fact earlier in the evening, when there would have been time to explore how, as Mae says, “Bob and I and Susan were on this journey together.”
I’d love an entire play about those three characters, and I’d love it if there were fewer characters in “Lois Lane,” and I’d especially love it if it omitted a cartoonish depiction of “Bewitched” star Elizabeth Montgomery.
The play’s needlessly complicated timeline stretches all the way back to Bob’s childhood and bounces back and forth confusingly, introducing many minor characters, played by a nimble ensemble of three, who keep things moving without adding much. The timeline also obscures the compelling story of Susan coming to understand herself and, as Kimberly puts it in the program, having her “dreams come true.”
Kimberly’s script is compassionate and ruefully funny. (Asked how she’ll know she has been accepted as a woman, Susan cracks, “When nobody listens to me anymore”). The cast is excellent, particularly since they’re given the challenge of playing most of their lines directly to the audience, rather than to each other.
The paucity of moments in which characters genuinely relate to each other means there’s surprisingly little drama in this play’s depiction of what we can plainly see has been an extremely dramatic life.