By Sam Affoumado
Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) may possibly be the most complex disabilities that families can face. The New York Premiere of Falling, a drama by Deanna Jent, beautifully directed by Lori Adams, opened at the Minetta Lane Theater on October 15, 2012. Ms. Adams’ strong production candidly examines the challenges of two parents struggling to raise Josh, their severely autistic young adult son making Falling a compelling evening of theater. The intense drama is filled with emotionally painful situations while also being infused with moments of raw tension- relieving laughter. The play transcends the story’s poignant subject matter, while never becoming sentimental or political, but rather delivering a straightforward look into their chaotic, day-to-day family life.
The Martins have their daily routines down to a science. Virtually, every minute is planned and every move they make calculated to defuse potential confrontations. They make effective use of behavior modification strategies like the large, prominently displayed calendars, which remind them of upcoming events and rewards for their son’s positive behavior. Family members even make use of secret code words and employ gestures to thwart potentially dangerous incidents. Tedious daily rituals are reinforced to maintain a degree of peace and harmony in their unpredictably volatile household.
On this particular day, their usually smooth scheduling begins to unravel ultimately falling apart. Their health aide refuses to return because Josh has been too aggressive. The agency does not have a substitute with the necessary training or skills to send as a replacement, so today Mom and Dad will have no breaks in sharing the exhausting task of caring for their emotionally impulsive son. The scheduled arrival of Mom’s religious mother-in-law, Grammy Sue (Celia Howard), who sincerely attempts to support the situation with prayer, only adds to the chaos while fueling the fire. Events accumulate appallingly while their relationships begin to unravel hurling the family into a whirlpool of violent episodes.
The impressive Daniel Everidge (Josh) gives a moving performance as he navigates the character’s sudden transitions, while skillfully externalizing the physical manifestation of an autistic man-child. The actor paints a vivid portrait revealing the tortured nature of the character’s soul. We can feel the constant bombardment by external stimuli that easily spark his extremely dysfunctional episodes.
His family, however, has discovered some marvelous techniques to aid Josh and temper his outbursts. They have created a soothing physical form of stimulation from a rigged box of falling feathers that Josh uses frequently as well as an arsenal of other strategies the family has learned to execute at his volatile moments.
The entire ensemble is outstanding. Julia Murney (Tami) is powerful as Josh’s over protective, all-loving, and forgiving mother. She often endures emotional and physical abuse at the hands of her own son, but she is determinedly unwilling to send him away to a group home. No place seems good enough or appropriately safe enough for Josh. Her resolve to keep Josh at home puts a heavy toll on every member of the household. Her husband Bill (Daniel Pearce), who equally shares the burden of raising Josh, feels shut out by his wife both physically and emotionally. Lisa (Jacey Powers} embodies the neglected teenage daughter’s struggle with her feelings of resentment often exploding in anger at the life she has been forced to endure.
All the members of the family have their coping mechanisms, but Tami relies heavily on wine and dream-like fantasy escapes.
The theatrical devices in Tami’s surreal dream sequences at first seem disjointed and may not work for everyone, but they ultimately serve a purpose. We come to understand her frustrations, doubts and conflicted feelings about her son.
The absorbing play is an illuminating evening of theater. The entire cast is extraordinary and every actor has moments to shine. The family drama speaks volumes about unconditional love as well as dashed hopes and dreams, daring to take an unflinching look at the affects of autism and the sacrifices needed to cope with this rarely explored disease.
Kudos to Rick Sordelet (Movement and Fight Director), to set designer John Stark, who created a realistic interior complete with little toy trains and piles of toddlers DVDs perfectly establishing the chaos that is this family’s lives, and to lighting designer Julie Mack, who takes us from grim reality to moments of surreal escape.
Presented by Terry Schnuck, James and Catherine Berges, Crystal Beuerlein, and Michael and Noémi Neidorff at the Minetta Lane Theatre, 18 Minetta Lane, NYC. Opened Oct. 15 for an open run. (800) 982-2787 or www.ticketmaster.com. Casting by Pat McCorkle.
Photos: Carol Rosegg
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