'217 Boxes' at the Painted Bride: A courageous mystery man who changed history

Cast and crew of "The 217 Boxes of Dr. Henry Anonymous": (from left) Ken Marks, director Ain Gordon, Derek Lucci, and Laura Esterman at the Painted Bride.

Before the mid-'70s, a psychiatrist would have been mad to admit he was gay. Quite literally. At the time, homosexuality was listed as a mental illness in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

Philadelphia psychiatrist John Ercel Fryer, however, did just that in 1972 - and of all places at the American Psychiatric Association's annual conference in Dallas.

"I am a homosexual. I am a psychiatrist," he said, opening a now-famous speech.

To protect himself - he already had lost a job at the University of Pennsylvania because he was gay - he wore a rubber Halloween mask, calling himself Dr. H. Anonymous.

"I'm not sure how anonymous he could have been," said playwright and director Ain Gordon, whose new play is about Fryer's life and work. "He was 6-foot-5 and 300 pounds, this big man with a loud, booming voice!"

Titled 217 Boxes of Dr. Henry Anonymous, the three-character play will be performed Thursday through Saturday at the Painted Bride Arts Center. Gordon, a three-time Obie-winning writer and director based in New York, also premiered his 2013 play If She Stood at the Bride.

Fryer's speech confirmed and supported a wave of new research on sexuality - that homosexuality is not an illness but a variation on predominating patterns of human sexuality - and it helped change the APA's views on homosexuality.

Though the famous speech is included in Gordon's play, the main focus is on Fryer's relationships with friends and family.

Gordon learned of Fryer when he came across 217 boxes filled with Fryer's papers tucked away at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in Center City.

It was a match made in heaven, said Gordon, an avid historical researcher. He used a two-year grant to work as the society's artist-in-residence to go through and catalog the collection.

"I love archival research," Gordon said in a recent interview. "I eat this stuff up. This is like crack to me."

Donated to the society after Fryer's death in 2003, the material was a chaotic jumble. Gordon said, "It made me look at the randomness of how a person is assembled posthumously" by biographers, historians, and even the person's own family. "How much of his life is left missing?"

Gordon said he considered himself a historian who captures and preserves the lives of people who usually remain invisible to mainstream historians.

"Traditional history doesn't make room for a lot of incomplete stories," he said, "of the stories of people who are invisible, who are pushed to the margins," including women, minorities, or those with disabilities.

Bringing a semblance of order to the mass of papers was quite a challenge, Gordon said. Most daunting was the question of how to shape the material into drama.

He decided to tell Fryer's story by looking at the doctor's correspondence with three people who were part of his life - Fryer's father, Ercel (played by Ken Marks); his longtime friend, gay activist Alfred A. Gross (Derek Lucci); and Fryer's secretary, Katherine M. Luder (Laura Esterman). The letters revealed a great deal about the way closeted men feel they need to remain invisible lest they are discovered and of the coded language they are forced to use.

The play will consist of monologues by each of the three characters.

Instead of trying to reconstruct Fryer's inner world, his deepest thoughts and feelings, Gordon's relational approach to biography allows Fryer to emerge in conversation with other people, each of whom sees a different side of the man.

Gordon said that although Fryer's mother sent the young doctor hundreds of letters, he found Fryer's father more fascinating. The elder man sent only seven letters to his son in his life.

Neither parent ever openly discussed homosexuality, said Gordon. Fryer's mother cultivated a cheerful ignorance; his father, who was deeply troubled by the idea of homosexuality, grappled with the issue all his life.

"He was this blue-collar, working-class man," said Gordon, "but he tried to offer his son an honest affection."

Maybe not honest enough, said Marks, who plays the father. "He's trying to come to grips with his son's . . . sexual identity while never talking about it directly. In [my] monologue, I make a point of showing how he had trouble even saying the word homosexual."

Adds Marks, like his wife, the senior Fryer "pretended most of his life not to know" his son was gay.

On the other hand, Luder, Fryer's secretary, fully accepted the doctor, to whom she was deeply devoted.

Fired from her job as a legal secretary at 67 because she refused to retire, Luder met Fryer after answering a want ad in the newspaper.

"There was an instant rapport that lasted for 24 years," said Esterman. "Katherine continued to work for him until her death at the age of 91."

Lucci, who plays Gross, said the activist helped gays remain invisible, especially from the law. Such a strategy was harshly rejected by activists in the 1960s and '70s.

Gross "found Fryer when he was looking for a trustworthy psychiatrist who could get on the stand and be an expert witness for the defense in cases [involving] gay men" who had broken indecency laws, said Lucci. "Fryer had to tell the court that, yes, being gay is deviant, but he also had to find a way to show that the [accused] was not dangerous."

Despite his posthumous fame, Fryer remains somewhat mysterious, unknown, said Gordon.

After all, he said, there can be no drama without mystery.

"I hope there is enough of a trace of the person to make him tantalizing," he said, "but for him to remain unknown enough to leave room for drama."

217 Boxes of Dr. Henry Anonymous
8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at the Painted Bride Arts Center, 230 Vine St.

Tickets: $20.
Information: 215-925-9914 or paintedbride.org

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