Gender-confirming surgery — often called gender-reassignment surgery — didn’t have an agreed-upon name in 1930, when Lili Elbe became one of the first people known to undergo the procedure. Bixby Elliot’s thoughtful new play Sommerfugl, directed by Stephen Brackett, chronicles Elbe’s pathbreaking saga.
We meet Lili as a Danish artist named Einar (Wayne Wilcox), living a bohemian life with his wife and fellow artist Grete (Aubyn Philabaum). But Einar is depressed and alienated from his body. One day Grete’s model is running late, so Einar dons the lavender dress she’s planning to paint — and, dressed as a woman, becomes Lili, a truer self. But how to be Lili all the time? Doctors tell Einar he’s hysterical and prescribe electroshock therapy; friends think Lili is a costume for club nights, not a permanent identity. Eventually an innovative surgeon takes the case, and Lili emerges for good.
Elbe’s fascinating tale, also the subject of an upcoming biopic, deserves attention. But Sommerfugl succumbs to some awkward theatrical choices: generically old-fashioned speech and halfhearted European accents, for one thing, as if we need a smattering of ja‘s to remember the characters are Danish. More important, Elliot’s focus on the inspiring transformation saga (sommerfugl means “butterfly”) oversimplifies Elbe’s complicated life. This story would be worth telling even without the feel-good ending — something the real-life Elbe didn’t have. Miriam Felton-Dansky
By Bixby Elliot
Fourth Street Theater
83 East 4th Street