Falling is a play you may never forget. Not just for its incredible acting, but also for its subject matter. It’s the story of an exceptional nuclear family: a couple with a teenage daughter and a severely autistic 18-year-old son. And a well-meaning grandmother who comes to visit with all her platitudes intact. “All things work together for good,” she says, flourishing her Bible.
Be warned: This play chronicles a day in the life of the playwright, Deanna Jent, a Julie Andrews look-alike with a Ph.D. in Theatre from Northwestern University, who is the Artistic Director of Mustard Seed Theatre in St. Louis. Falling is written, she says, from “The War Zone of Extreme Parenting,” and it’s an intense, upsetting, and terrifying place to be.
Matt Little plays the son, Josh Martin, with a ferociousness that is alarming. He is, by turns, angry, aggressive, threatening, demanding, resistant, destructive, childlike, apologetic, and playful. But whatever his mood, he requires the constant attention and vigilance of his ever-alert parents.
His parents, Bill (Matthew Elkins) and Tami (Anna Khaja), humor him, placate him, and physically restrain him when he gets violent.
His younger sister Lisa (Tara Windley), knows “the rules” but can’t help resenting, and even hating, him. He monopolizes the focus in the household and sucks all the air out of any room he enters. But, as Tami notes, “Parents don’t have the choice to hate their children.”
And his visiting grandmother Sue (Karen Landry) watches it all with mounting horror and eventually poses the inevitable question: “Can’t you put him in an institution?”
The answer, unhappily, deals with the fact that there aren’t enough facilities to meet all the needs, nor enough money in the state budget to keep them funded. And at home, Josh’s condition is so volatile that no caregiver or tutor will stay with him for very long.
“It’s like having a toddler for 12 years,” Tami says.
The range of autistic disorders is vast and varied and is thought to be genetic, triggered by some environmental factor. But the spectrum is too varied for the disorder to be caused by a single gene.
In a recent play at the Fountain Theatre, On the Spectrum, by Ken LaZebnik, the protagonist was a high-functioning young man, a 23-year-old college graduate with Asperger’s Syndrome. His disorder included physical awkwardness and social inappropriateness: lack of humor, naivete, and an insistence on taking all conversation literally. As he noted, he “doesn’t waste a lot of time on emotions.”
Nevertheless, he falls in love with a young woman who is also “on the autistic disorder spectrum” who is much more severely disabled than he. She lives in an Otherworld that she has invented for herself and speaks through a mechanical voice on her computer.
Though the play is heart-wrenching in its display of different types of autistic behavior, in the end it is a bittersweet fantasy/love story.
Not so for Falling. It is an unremittingly intense and crushing experience. But mesmerizing. You find yourself holding your breath for long periods of time. And being blown away by the vividness of the performances.
Falling is not a barrel of laughs. But it’s definitely a “must see.”
Produced by the celebrated Rogue Machine Theatre Company, this West Coast premiere, expertly directed by Rogue Machine’s award-winning Co-Artistic Director Elina de Santos, will run Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 3. A Speaker Series of talkbacks with the audience follows each Sunday performance.