Sunday, September 4, 2011

FALLING • Mustard Seed Theatre

With an estimated 1 in 110 kids having an ASD, or Autism spectrum disorder, many of us are familiar with autism to some degree -- in a once or twice removed kind of way.  But seeing the challenges of a family with an autistic son up close and personal in Mustard Seed's first show of their season, written by artistic director, Deanna Jent, is a powerful and touching experience.

There's a palpable heaviness in the Martin household that's apparent the minute the lights come up.  Josh (Jonathan Foster) is the 18 year old son of Tami (Michelle Hand) and Bill (Greg Johnston).  His parents seem to have done their research about this disorder, and there are knowing glances exchanged between them when anything in Josh's life suddenly strays outside of the normal routine.  They are in a constant state of readiness to deflect and distract him, if necessary.  Sometimes during the day this means a box of feathers.  Other times, it means bringing out his marble collection or one of his favorite DVDs.  Tami and Bill's adolescent daughter Lisa (Katie Donnelly) is also well acquainted with the code words, routines and triggers and she's been forced to shift the focus of her own life to her brother's, and take on the role of a co-care-taker.  Josh's autism can tend to be aggressive, and the growing strain on the family is doubled when Bill's God-fearing mom, Sue (Carmen Russell), comes into town for a visit.  She thinks prayer and an on-hand bible will help take care of Josh's disorder, but again, there are glances exchanged between the parents that make it clear that they are veterans in "extreme parenting", and grandma is a newbie, with no real understanding of the situation.  They've tried prayer -- it doesn't make anything go away, and Sue isn't used to the cloud of tension that the parents have become accustomed to living with every day.

Michelle Hand (Tami Martin), Jonathan Foster (Josh Martin)
and Greg Johnston (Bill Martin).
Photo credit: John Lamb
It's very eye-opening to see how Bill and Tami have come up with little bets and prizes for each other, and a day without a phone call from their son's special needs school is a cause for quiet celebration.  But Sue soon becomes aware of the anxiety of their lives when the barking of a dog is all it takes for Josh's aggressive unease to explode, and it's a scene that is violently captivating.

There is a "theatrical conceit" (<-- I think that's the correct term.  Probably not though) that happens about 3/4's of the way in that I won't disclose here, but it does leave the audience with the pleasure of thinking this family might have gotten a break, only to find out that no, the reality of autism doesn't easily just disappear, and it leaves you feeling a little guilty -- wishing, for the family's sake, they had gotten a break. 

Under  the impressive direction of Lori Adams, the cast was strong all the way around.  Michelle Hand was funny and effectively heartbreaking as Josh's mom Tami, who always has a bottle of red on hand if she needs a glass, or a shot of bourbon when the pressure becomes more difficult to handle.  Greg Johnston was wonderful as Bill, whose approach was a little more relaxed, but it was clear he was not unaffected by his son's influence on the household.  Nor was he unaffected by the strain his son has inflicted on his marital relationship with his wife.  Katie Donnelly as Josh's sister, Lisa, was touchingly believable as an adolescent, "totally over" the family life, and ready to move in with Grandma to escape the stress of her own home.  Carmen Russell was intriguing as Grandma Sue, taking on the role as an outsider looking in, like the audience, and Jonathan Foster as Josh was believable and commanded your complete attention.

Greg Johnston (Bill Martin), Carmen Russell (Sue Martin),
Michelle Hand (Tami Martin) and Jonathan Foster (Josh Martin).
Photo credit: John Lamb
Also great work by the technical crew, including John Stark's set, Julie Mack's lighting, Zoe Sullivan's sound design and Shaun Sheley's movement & combat choreography.

This show has extended for another week, so now there are 2 more weekends to check this out.  Honestly -- I wasn't planning on seeing it, but I'm so glad I did.  The performances alone make it well worth seeing.


FALLING

Written by Deanna Jent
Directed by Lori Adams
Mustard Seed Theatre, 6800 Wydown Blvd.
through September 24 | tickets: $20 - $25
Performances Thursday through Saturday at 8pm, Saturdays & Sundays at 2pm

Cast:
Jonathan Foster (Josh Martin & Lawrence Malerry), Michelle Hand (Tami Martin), Katie Donnelly (Lisa Martin), Greg Johnston (Bill Martin) and Carmen Russell (Sue Martin).

Creative:
Scenic design by John Stark; costume design by Deanne Jent; lighting design by Julie Mack; sound design by Zoe Sullivan; movement & combat by Shaun Sheley; stage manager, Adam Flores.

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