I walked into the New Directions Theater to see The Flid Show, Richard Willett's play about a young cabaret singer deformed by thalidomide, feeling a bit guilty. Was I compelled by the true story of a recent medical transgression, or by the fact that the show's lead is actually a victim of that transgression? Was my interest grounded in the spectacle, or in the promise of education through art? The strength of this performance, impressively and earnestly given by Mat Fraser, is that it rendered my guilt completely irrelevant. Fraser invites us to take a simple journey of self-discovery with Duncan Mowbray that places the character's life and family in a historical context, which he was trying unsuccessfully to ignore.
When that journey begins, what we know about thalidomide is apparent in Duncan's body: his arms are deformed, the upper and forearm bones much smaller than they should be. The singer insists that he be treated "like everyone else" but only performs folk and pop songs from 1962, the year of his birth and the thalidomide outbreak.
He allows his motherly older sister, Brenda, to dress and undress him, but bristles at her attempts to meddle in his social life or publicize his cabaret act. When he is visited by a Dickensian series of ghosts, each of them a key figure in either his life or the history of the drug, Duncan's contradictory feelings about his deformity are challenged and eventually changed.
But The Flid Show is not merely a history lesson. It is also a love story between Duncan and Rachel, a self-aware doctor from the States who lets down her guard enough to not only hold Duncan but be held by him. We empathize immediately with Rachel because in her we see our clumsy attempts to understand Duncan's situation.
When he first visits her office, Duncan cloaks his attraction for Rachel in piss and vinegar. He is feisty and rude, a showoff who delights in making her squirm. The sexual climax of their relationship, an extended nude scene, has the potential to feel forced or, even worse, uncomfortable. But it is neither, because Kim Donovan succeeds remarkably at making Rachel as emotionally vulnerable as Fraser's Duncan is. In that scene especially, we confront Fraser's body