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'Falling' at Meadow Brook champions families coping with autism

Falling makes its Michigan premiere at Meadow Brook Theatre.
Falling makes its Michigan premiere at Meadow Brook Theatre.
Courtesy of Meadow Brook Theatre

Falling at Meadow Brook Theatre

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If you’re a normal parent, your prime directive is pretty simple: provide a nurturing environment where your children feel safe to grow, and help them become independent adults.

But what happens when one of your children has an autistic spectrum disorder that makes him, at times, a physical danger to other family members? What’s “the right thing to do” when what’s best for one may not be best for the others?

“Falling,” by Deanna Jent, deals with this difficult subject in an authentic, if heart-rending way. Playwright Jent’s family is among those who have a loved-one struggling with autism, and there’s no mistaking the detailed, slice-of-life portrayal of all that entails. Kudos to Meadow Brook Theatre for teaming up with OUCARES to raise both awareness and much needed funds to help treat this disorder, which affects between one and 1.5 million Americans today.

“I saw ‘Falling’ in New York, and it was such an honest story,” says Travis Walter, MBT’s artistic director. “I couldn’t stop talking about it. Daniel Everidge, who played Josh, was spectacular. I’m so excited that he decided to join our MBT family and reprise his role in our production.”

Daniel Everidge is simply uncanny in his depiction of 18-year-old Joshua, an adult-sized boy coping with a severe impairment. His moods swing from the rapturous joy of dancing in falling feathers, to aggressive outbursts triggered by something as seemingly mundane as a barking dog.

Sarab Kamoo proves once again that she is an actress who must be taken seriously. As Josh’s mother Tami, she conveys all the stoicism of a woman whose basic instincts are pulling her in opposite directions – doing what’s best for her son while wondering if she’s failing her teenage daughter, Lisa. Tami copes by clinging tightly to the things she can control, stretching physically and emotionally to keep her family together by sheer force of will.

Chris Hetikko also delivers a strong and sympathetic performance as Josh and Lisa’s dad, Bill. A loving husband and caring father, he wants what’s best for his son but worries that he can’t protect others in his family from collateral damage. And he is terrified by what the strain is doing to his wife and their marriage.

Lisa (Lizzie Rainville), like any teenage girl, just wants a “normal” family, and resents the fact that her world, by necessity, revolves around the needs of her big brother. She’s a good kid trapped in a tough situation.

Together, Bill, Tami and Lisa know how to read Josh’s signals and have developed an elaborate scheme of games and diversions they can use to help Josh cope with things that trigger aggressive outbreaks. More alarming is the fact that they have also construed a series of code words that they’ve developed to warn each other when it’s important to seek safety or get help.

Their lives are an elaborate plate-spinning act. And when Bill’s mother, “Grammy Sue,” arrives for a week-long visit, the plates start falling. Grammy Sue, played by Carolyn Gillespie, is a devout woman who loves her family and encourages them to surrender their hopes and fears to a good and caring God. She prays for Joshua’s healing, and urges Tami and Sue to join her. Gillespie handles the role with admirable restraint, and we like and admire Grammy Sue for wanting to help, even if she’s not sure how.

The truth is, every case of autism is unique. By definition, that’s the nature of spectrum disorders. Even though this particular story focuses on one young man with profound challenges, everyone who sees this powerful production will leave with a greater understanding of and empathy for the many families affected by autism.

Without giving too much away, it’s safe to say that if you think you know where the plot is leading, you don’t. This stirring story has a few surprises. And at its core, there is a message most can empathize with: sometimes the only way to hold it together is to let go.

“Falling” is directed by Travis Walter, who infuses the story with a nuanced balance of tenderness, personal tragedy and universal truth. Terry Carpenter is the stage manager, with detailed set design by Jennifer Price Fick, costumes by Liz Goodall, lighting by Reid G. Johnson and sound by Mike Duncan.

“Falling” runs through April 13, 2014, with performances on Wednesday through Sunday scheduled for a variety of evening and matinee show times. Check the MTB online calendar for details. Tickets range from $25 to $40 and are available by calling the Meadow Brook Theatre box office at 248-377-3300 or going online at Ticketmaster. Student discounts are available at the box office. Groups of eight or more should call 248-370-3316 for group pricing. Please note that “Falling” is intended for mature audiences. Meadow Brook Theatre is located on the campus of Oakland University in Rochester.

If you are looking for ways to help autism-related causes, Meadow Brook Theatre offers this link. In addition, if you are seeking therapeutic arts and recreation opportunities for loved ones with mental, physical and/or emotional impairments, we highly recommend the services of FAR.