Story: Tami Martin’s plate of responsibilities is full. She’s a whirlwind of activity as she cooks, cleans and caters to the whims of her family, including teenage daughter Lisa, son Josh and husband Bill. She may well have a full-time job outside the home, too, as could Bill. We don’t know that, though, because we’re focused on the maelstrom of movement in their home.
Josh is a young adult with an Autism Spectrum Disorder at the more severe end of the condition. He’s always been a handful to care for, but now as a fully grown adult his sporadic and unpredictably aggressive behavior has Tami and Bill practicing “extreme parenting” and Lisa unhappily resigned to living on the edge.
When Bill’s overly religious mother Sue pays a visit from out of town, she does her unwitting best to set a match to the emotional kindling in the Martin household. Like the strips of paper that fall out of a box perched above some furniture to provide Josh with jolts of pleasure, Tami’s life seems perpetually in danger of falling over the edge as she and Bill look for the best ways to care for their challenging son.
Highlights: Deanna Jent, artistic director of Mustard Seed Theatre and the mother of an autistic son, garnered the Kevin Kline Award for Best New Play in 2011 for this heart-rending, deeply affecting look at a family in the throes of coping with severe autism. Jent’s one-act, 80-minute piece (which I incorrectly remembered as a two-act work) went on to be performed Off-Broadway, in Los Angeles and Michigan and is scheduled to be presented in Brazil in 2015.
That’s primarily because Jent is as good a writer as she is a director, and she’s a very, very good director. She’s taken the reins of this revival (Lori Adams helmed the original) and enticed all but one of the original performers to reprise their roles superbly in another taut, tense and terrifying look at the Martins’ fragile world.
Other Info: The lone newcomer to the cast is Daniel Lanier as Josh, and his portrayal is a bit different. While Lanier beautifully conveys the various symptoms of autism, such as avoiding eye contact, flailing his arms, rocking his body and repeating words or phrases, he lacks the physically imposing stature of Jonathan Foster, who portrayed Josh in the 2011 version with additional height and weight.
Thus, Foster’s body could seem more menacing that Lanier’s slighter frame, although the diminutive Michelle Hand as Tami is no match for either of them.
It’s fascinating to watch Hand, Greg Johnston as Bill, Katie Donnelly as Lisa and Carmen Russell as Sue drain their emotions once again in their original parts. They work seamlessly with Jent’s realistic dialogue and interact naturally in normally embarrassing situations, such as Bill seeing his mother aghast at observing Josh play with himself, or Donnelly exploding over Josh’s predictable reaction to the barking of a dog she’s found and wants to keep. There’s a palpable normality to these reactions that make them all the more poignant.
Jent’s pacing is consistent and convincing, and the set designed by John Stark covers a lot of territory, from a dining and living room area to bedrooms off stage left and a door to the front yard at stage right. Focused lighting, ‘domestic’ costuming and the sounds of the outside world are effectively provided by the Sullivans, Michael, Jane and Zoe, respectively.
Meg Brinkley adds several carefully situated props and Shaun Sheley oversees the movement and combat elements, less startling than in the original presentation but distressing nonetheless.
Mustard Seed’s 2011 production was a major hit that saw its run extended. Some shows for this four-week engagement have sold out as well, but plenty of tickets are available. Falling is a harrowing night of theater that will cause you to stop and contemplate your own family in a different light.
Company: Mustard Seed Theatre-
Venue: Fontbonne Fine Arts Theatre, Big Bend at Wydown
Dates: April 17, 18, 19, 24, 25, 26, 27, May 1, 2, 3, 4
Tickets: $20-$30 (or Pay with a Can/Pay What You Can on Thursdays); contact www.mustardseedtheatre.com
Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of John Lamb