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Featuring the lyrics of Carolyn Leigh, Dorothy Fields, and Betty Comden,

and the comic monologues of

Martha King De Silva

At the Rosslyn Spectrum to Oct. 15

It’s not that Daphne Scholinski was crazy. It’s that she nearly went crazy trying to live up to some pretty arbitrary ideas about sanity.

That’s the irony, and the near-tragedy, at the heart of The Last Time I Wore a Dress, Scholinski’s memoir of her institutionalized adolescence—three years confined in three mental hospitals, tagged with a Gender Identity Disorder diagnosis, among others, because she didn’t act much like a girl and didn’t care much what others thought about it. Emily Solomon’s efficient stage adaptation, playing at the Source Theatre in the off-hours, never loses sight of the central tension between Scholinski’s healthy sense of her individuality and the rigid notions of conformity that nearly destroyed it, but neither does it ever get a solid grasp on what maddened her parents and her psychiatrists more: her butch walk or her bad attitude?

To her credit, Scholinski isn’t shy about acknowledging the latter: Her book creates a self-portrait every bit as dark and disturbing as the paintings that line the Source lobby—artworks produced, night after night, by Scholinski herself, who works silently on canvases stretched at the edge of the stage, painting variations of her story while performers act it out behind her. The teenager she was in the early ’80s seems to have been a brooding personality, with edges not just rough, but jagged: Daphne (a winning Sarah Fox, her expressive eyes always a little hunted) tells stark stories about fistfights and parental beatings, drinking and drugging and petty criminality, but whether she was actually dangerous (to herself, to others) or just talked a good game to keep authority figures off balance, the play never quite decides, and the book isn’t a lot more conclusive.

Both, instead, focus on the fearful, foolish reactions of shrinks and hospital staffers to the gender-fuck signals Scholinski remembers sending “since the third grade.” Dress up, they tell her; do something about your hair. And never mind that the guy across the hall thinks he’s Jesus; can’t you manage to get laid? A curiously old-fashioned approach, to be sure, even for the ’80s, and no doubt a confusing, even irrational situation for young Daphne to find herself in. But by her own account, the same doctors were wrestling with a welter of confusing signals, a thicket of actual troubles and outright lies, trying to help her sort herself out. Scholinski acknowledges, in a note at the front of her book, that her version of the story is “my truth,” not necessarily the literal truth; the play is less careful about shadings, and it leaves the adults in Scholinski’s story—tradition-bound psychiatrists, horrendously selfish parents—looking more like one-dimensional villains.

Or like one-dimensional warm-and-fuzzy heroes: Monica Palko, playing a more than usually humane student psychiatrist in the second act, serves as a fairly obvious signal that the story has turned a corner. Generally, though, Solomon manages to employ this kind of dramatic shorthand without relying too heavily on it, and Delia Taylor’s direction is deft enough to keep most of it from becoming glaringly obvious. Taylor is graceful, too, with the visual and aural pranks that lace the production and lance some of the worst pain. Brian Keating’s sound design, for instance, punctuates the action with pointedly sarcastic snippets of period songs; the effect is one of wry humor, knowing but not resigned, and it may be the single truest evocation of Scholinski’s distinctive voice the production has to offer.

Gender roles are in play among the Horizons Theatre folks, too, though less obviously and to less dramatic effect. The company, which bills itself as theater “from a woman’s perspective,” is staging a musical evening that seems to want to tickle audiences into thinking a little more about the way boys and girls do what the birds and bees do.

Feather-light and user-friendly, Club Horizons: Masquerade lines up love songs and lamentations from some of theater’s great women lyricists, plugging in a comic monologue or two midway through each set (the scenelets are by local writer Martha King De Silva) and looking for themes and touchstones in the way lyricists Carolyn Leigh, Dorothy Fields, and Betty Comden treat the subjects of angst and amour.

It’s hard to say whether much emerges—certainly the show makes the point, however broadly, that even smart women seem divided about whether the topics of love and sex should inspire sappiness or sass—but it’s hard not to like a lineup that puts a sweet tenor like Colin James’ to work on a song as agreeable as Cy Coleman’s “Real Live Girl.” Wanda Kelly-Coppedge, Karen Paone, and Terri Allen round out the ensemble, each a distinctive presence, and if there’s nothing sophisticated about the way the songs are strung together, there’s sophistication aplenty in the music itself. Among the reasons, obscure and familiar, to score a seat: Leonard Bernstein’s “A Little Bit in Love” and “Lonely Town”; Jule Styne’s “Killing Time” and Larry Grossman’s “Learn to Be Lonely,” both Sondheimesque in their bleakness; and Arthur Schwartz’s engaging “Make the Man Love Me.” CP