Family Strength in the Face of Autism

Falling (Rogue Machine)userpic=theatre2Raising a family is hard, even under the best of circumstances. There’s dealing with the teen years, there’s the interplay between siblings, and there’s the effect that the children have on the relationship between the parents. Now imagine one of the children is severely autistic, and you have the premise of the play we saw last night at Rogue Machine Theatre (FB) in the Mid-City area of Los Angeles: “Falling“, by Deanna Jent (FB, Interview).

Falling” tells the story of the Martin family: parents Tami and Bill, their older son Josh, their teen daughter Lisa, and Bill’s mother, Sue. The complication in this family is that 18 year-old Josh has autism, and he is on the more severe side of the spectrum. He is able to go to school, but does not interact with people well and is increasingly prone to violence. This violence is such that finding aides to work with him in the home is nearly impossible — if Josh doesn’t scare him off, then he won’t interact with them because he doesn’t know them. Thus, it increasingly falls on his parents to manage him every day. This takes a continual toll on the family — both in the dynamics between the parents, the interaction with Josh, and the effect on Josh’s sister, Lisa, who seems to be forgotten in the struggle.

Everything comes to a head when Bill’s mother, Sue, comes for a visit and stays with the family. Sue is someone who believes in the power of prayer, and believes that God will give the family the answer to the pain of autism, if they just pray hard enough. Her visit upsets Josh’s routines, and Josh acts out.

This play explores how having an autistic son affects the family and its dynamics (although the mirror it holds up isn’t limited to autism — it applies to any family dealing with a member with a developmental disability). In particular, it shows how much this situation affects the mother, who has to put on a smile and be “up” to keep Josh calm… but the situation is increasingly stressing her to the point where she is falling apart. She’s torn between seeing what she wanted her son to be, and what she realizes he will really be. She’s torn between trying to manage her son in the arms of the family and the family home, or sending him to a group home (if she can find one) where his care might be uncertain, but will be there. She’s torn by how her focus on Josh has destroyed her relationship with her daughter, and the impact it is having on her marriage.

This show also explores, to a lesser extent, how having an autistic member of the family affects the rest of the family as well. We see how it makes parenting a tag-team exercise to trade off managing the increasing risk of Josh. We see how this pushes the parents apart; how the focus on the son risks destroying the intimacy between the adults. We see how it affects the daughter, who is secondary in the minds of her parents and whose life is forced to revolve around her brother and his outbursts. We also see how this looks to someone from the outside — in this case, Bill’s mother — who had no idea the extent of danger the family faces everyday. We see how living with the unpredictability of autism ratchets up the stress on the family.

I came into this play knowing only that it was a comedy/drama about a family living with autism. I came out seeing people I love in these actors. The family on stage mirrored, to varying extents, relatives of mine. They mirrored children my wife works with in her reading group at Van Nuys High. I gained understanding about what their parents are dealing with — understanding of the strength, determination, and love that such families have, and the day to day struggles they face. This play did just want good theatre is supposed to do — it made me think and reflect, to contemplate about my life and the life of those around me. This wasn’t a brainless tap-dancing extravaganza; it wasn’t an escapist musical or comedy that takes me away from my troubles. This was a mirror of real life, expertly performed, that exposes the drama that goes on around us without us seeing it. Everyone should see this play.

One of the things that makes this play work is the performing ensemble — the five actors that made up this family. Under the directoral hand of Elina de Santos (FB)  (assisted by Julia Doolittle (FB, TW)), this family seemed… real.   I can’t seem to think of a higher complement. As the mother, Tami Martin, Anna Khaja (FB) projected the inner strength required to continually deal with her son — you could see this strength in the humor she projected to keep him up, and you could see it in her fear when he became violent. Khaja also, however, portrayed the vulnerability behind that strength — demonstrated when she broke down after her son acted out, or when she considered what life would be without her son. As the father, Bill Martin, Matthew Elkins portrayed a different sort of inner strength and vulnerability. You could see his strength when dealing with his son and taking over for his wife, but you could also see in his performance how dealing with his son was destroying the relationship with his wife and daughter (in fact, rather telling, there was little father-daughter interaction in the show). These actors just seemed to inhabit their characters — you could see the love they had for each other, you could see the love they had for their children … you could see them as a family.

The children were also realistic. As you left the show, you really believed that Josh was autistic — showing the believability and attention to detail that Matt Little put into his performance. He had the looks, inattention, mannerisms, inappropriate focus, and behavior that just convinced you he was truly dealing with austism. In real life, he was also dealing with pain — according to the director, he had sprained his ankle a few days before and was performing in a boot, without crutches. This makes his performance and his focus even more remarkable (I’m continually amazed by the strength of actors to perform through the pain — something we saw also saw in DOMA’s production of Nine and the Patio Playhouse production of “Young Frankenstein). Also believable was Tara Windley (FB) as the teen daughter, Lisa.  As the father of a teen daughter, I can confirm that she portrayed a realistic teen — focused on herself and the wrongs done to her by her parents. But she also portrayed those moments of maturity that one increasingly sees as their daughter matures into a young woman. Again, believable and realistic.

Rounding out the cast/family was Karen Landry (FB) as Sue Martin, Josh’s grandmother and Bill’s father. She provided the outsider’s point of view — the point of view of someone who hadn’t been living with the autism perturbations on a daily basis. Again, her character seemed real — the concerned outsider who meant well, but in disturbing the routine and missing the signs, actually exacerbated the situation.

As I said — all in all, these were great performances that made you believe this was a real family. You saw the love and concern between the characters, but also saw the stress that having an autistic family member brings. Well, well played.

Supporting these performances was an excellent technical and artistic team. When I walked into the performance space (this was our first time at Rogue Machine), I was impressed by how realistic the set looked, with an intense attention to detail that made the set look like a real home. Credit for this goes to the team of Stephanie Kerley Schwartz (FB), who did the scenic design, and Sharron Shayne (FB), who did the property design.  Also contributing to the realism were the background sounds — the music, the dogs, the ambient noise provided by the sound design of Christopher Moscatiello (FB). The lighting design of Leigh Allen (FB) was subtle but effective in both setting the mood and conveying the passage of time (particularly the background lighting). The costumes by Elizabeth A. Cox again seemed realistic, but also seemed to take a lot of abuse (especially Tami’s costume). Joe Sofranko (FB) was the fight director, and made the acting-out interactions of Josh and Tami so believable that you really thought she was in danger. Rounding out the artistic team was Ramon Valdez (FB) (Stage Manager), Stephanie Kerley Schwartz (FB) (Resident Designer), John Perrin Flynn (FB) (Artistic Director), Elina de Santos (FB) (Co-Artistic Director), Amanda Mauer (FB) (Production Manager), David Mauer (FB) (Technical Director), Laura Hill (Managing Director), and Matthew Elkins (Producing Director).

Falling” continues at the Rogue Machine Theatre (FB) through December 22. Tickets are available through Rogue Machine Theatre; they may also be available through Goldstar Events. Sunday matinees have special wrap-around programs before and after the show dealing with Autism, presented in conjunction with the show’s community partner, The Miracle Project. This was our first time at Rogue Machine Theatre, and we were impressed with the quality of their project and their mission to produce new works. We plan to watch what they do, and we hope to be back.

Dining Notes: Originally, we thought about getting dinner at Versailles Cuban down the street, but we changed our mind and opted to eat instead at The Brownstone Bistro next door to the theatre. We were glad we did: we split a delightful salad and an expertly prepared salmon filet, with loads of fresh veggies. Much healthier than Versailles would have been (or some of the other choices in the area, such as Lucy’s Drive In or Roscoe’s Chicken and Wings). Although we didn’t know it when we ate there, if you stop at the theatre first and pick up your program, you can enjoy a 3-course pre-show prix fixe dinner for $20/person, or get a complementary glass of house wine or dessert with purchase of a full priced entree.

[Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre critic; I am, however, a regular theatre audience. I’ve been attending live theatre in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.]

Upcoming Theatre and Concerts:  Next weekend brings a quick local show before ACSAC:  The Little Mermaid” at Nobel Middle School on Friday, December 6. We then leave for New Orleans and the Annual Computer Security Applications Conference (ACSAC). When we return we have an interesting play, “Sherlock Through the Looking Glass“, at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble (FB). December, as currently scheduled for theatre, concludes with “Peter and the Starcatcher” at The Ahmanson Theatre (FB). Of course, there will be the traditional movie and Chinese Food on Christmas Day — right now, the two movie possibilities are “Saving Mr. Banks” opening December 13 (meaning we can use group discount tickets), or “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” opening December 25. None of the other December releases look worth the money (I’d rather see “August: Osage County” on the stage, thankyouverymuch). Looking into January: The first scheduled show is on January 18: “Mom’s Gift” at The Group Rep at the Lonny Chapman Theatre (FB) in North Hollywood. The following weekend, January 25, brings the first show of the REP East (FB) 10th season: “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change“ (which we last saw at REP in 2006). February 8 will bring “Forever Plaid” at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB). The following weekend, February 15, is being held for Lysistrata Jones at The Chance Theatre (FB) in Anaheim. The last weekend of February, February 22, is currently being held for Sutton Foster at the Broad Stage (FB) in Santa Monica (if I can find discount tickets). March brings “Sex and Education” at The Colony Theatre (FB) on March 8, and “Biloxi Blues” at REP East (FB) on March 29. It may also bring “Harmony” at The Ahmanson Theatre (FB) on March 22. The end of the month (actually April 5) bring “In The Heights” at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB). As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Bitter-Lemons, Musicals in LA and LA Stage Times, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411.