Chicago Theatre Review
Loving When It’s Hard to Love
Falling – Interrobang Theatre
It’s difficult to write objectively about a play, currently enjoying its stunning Chicago premiere, in a production that so moved the audience it was almost impossible to move afterward. This short, 60-minute bio-drama, written by Deanna Jent, is an accurate depiction of what life is like raising and living with an autistic child. It’s an extraordinarily powerful theatrical experience that must be seen to be appreciated.
Bill and Tami Martin are the parents of two teenage children. Lisa is a typical 16-year-old high school student, with the usual adolescent angst, interests and dislikes. Then there’s 18-year-old Josh. He’s a big boy who, when he doesn’t get his own way, becomes violent, especially to those around him. Josh has autism. He’s a special needs young man who has to be carefully monitored, specially nurtured and cautiously bargained with, in order to keep him at peace. Everyone in the family, including Grammy
Sue, who’s visiting for the weekend, has to walk on eggshells, living lives that revolve around Josh’s wants and needs.
It must be noted that this isn’t an entirely fictional story, nor is Jent’s play a plea for sympathy. It’s a realistic, slice-of-life account of what it’s like to live with an autistic child, based upon the playwright’s personal experience, parenting a son with Autism Spectrum Disorder. The incidents are real and brutal, the empathy these characters evoke from each theatergoer is undoubtedly individual, yet
universally overwhelming. And, although this play is a dramatic representation the powerful, traumatic events that transpire over a particularly eventful weekend within the Martin family, the play will land like a sucker punch and, ultimately, break your heart.
There’s no romanticizing or glossing over of the effect Josh has on his family. Tami is a model mother. She’s equal parts caregiver, primary school teacher and political negotiator. Tami, like every parent in a similar situation, should be awarded sainthood for her love, patience and sacrifice. In this role, the honesty and convincing believability of Amy Johnson’s performance cannot be dismissed. She’s a supreme talent, and the very heart and soul of this play. Ms. Johnson is the voice of the playwright. Both the actress’ stamina and vulnerability as Tami Martin, coupled with her love and empathy for both children, as well as her husband and his mother, is palpable. There are also moments when we see the chinks in her impenetrable armor, when Tami’s fortress of strength may be on the verge of crumbling. But something, perhaps the loving care offered by Bill, played with sensitivity by Nick Freed, or a much-needed hug from snarky daughter Lisa, portrayed with perfection by Tristin Hall, gives Tami that needed shot of optimism and the vigor to carry on.
There’s not enough adjectives to praise the impressive performance delivered by Justin Tsatsa, as Josh. He is truly a gifted actor whose depiction of this difficult character is award-worthy. In a conversation following his performance, the young actor confesses that, besides being guided by talented director James Yost’s sharp, sensitive instruction, Tsatsa researched his role. He spent time observing a young, autistic child in his home. As an artist, he became aware, beyond the world defined by Deanna Jent’s astonishing script, of how a real child on the autistic spectrum reacts and functions in a family. The actor learned to not only imitate this particular child, but to completely immerse himself in Josh’s particular universe. Mr. Tsatsa truly becomes this 18-year-old autistic young man. He’s so convincing that, only in a surprising dream sequence, later in the play, does the audience realize how truly talented Tsatsa is in his portrayal.
In Jent’s play, theatergoers see how the atmosphere changes whenever Josh enters or leaves the room. We learn how various stimuli need to be controlled, in order to not set off the young man. Code words, methods of behavior modification, praise and positive reinforcement, rewards and time-outs, daily and weekly schedules—all are part of the Martin family’s daily life. Teenage Lisa wishes Josh hadn’t ever been born. Bill harbors hope that a facility can be found to safely institutionalize Josh and, thus, free the family from their eternal servitude. Gammy Sue (nicely played by Heidi Katz), who’s had an accident that’s put her in a walking cast, believes that if the family will just pray together, God will take away Josh’s autism. Tami simply lives from moment to moment, keeping Josh on task, praising his self- control and gently punishing him when he forgets the rules.
The play isn’t without its joy and mirth. A box of feathers which, when Josh pulls the cord, showers the young man with color and softness, provides childlike wonder. This reaction inspires Josh’s happy dance, so contageous that it makes everyone smile. Josh loves his picture books, puzzles, trains and certain specific foods, which he prefers to eat in the privacy of his room. While the boy’s frequent masturbation shocks Grammy Sue and provides the audience with humor, Tami and Bill treat it like any of Josh’s other inappropriate behaviors.
But there’s one special moment that lingers after seeing this production. Josh, who dislikes any human contact, has a particularly violent incident that is horrifying. But following it, after everything has returned to “normal,” Tami tells her son that she needs a hug. Josh characteristically disregards his mother, but then lets Tami embrace him momentarily before moving away from her. In that few seconds, Tami is no longer the courageous mom of a special needs child. She’s just a mother who’s learned to love, even when it’s hard. And these special, fleeting moments bring beauty into this difficult, yet magnificent play.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented March 17-April 16 by Interrobang Theatre Project at the Athenaeum Theatre (Studio 2), 2936 N. Southport Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available in person at the box office, by calling them at 773-935-6875 or by going to www.interrobangtheatre.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.