Many stories about children on the autism spectrum include a light at the end of the tunnel. But, what happens when the light is barely visible? In Deanna Jent's provocative new family drama, Falling, now at Off-Broadway's Minetta Lane Theatre, the playwright takes the audience into a world where every day is a struggle for a mom named Tami (played by Julia Murney) and her husband and daughter. Tami is also the mother of an autistic 18-year-old named Josh (indelibly portrayed by Daniel Everidge, who is so convincing that some audience members have thought he's on the autism spectrum). The play charts how Tami — a character slightly based on Jent — struggles to balance family life, her son's occasional violent outbursts and her sanity. When her mother-in-law pays the family a visit, the daily routine is thrown off its axis — prompting an oft-repeated discussion about the possibilities for Josh's future. What's the future for child whose aggression is proving to be a danger to those around him?
I was really looking forward to Falling. I took a friend whose adolescent daughter is severely autistic, and after the play she turned to me and said, "This is my life." Do you often get that response?
Deanna Jent: From people for whom it is their life — yes. Part of the power of theatre is telling stories that haven't been put out there in public before… I remember I was in college when the first wave of gay plays came out in the '70s and '80s; for some of my friends — for the first time — to see honestly-depicted, real people [and] not stereotypes, that was so powerful for them. I don't equate this play necessarily to that, but there's something there… It makes me realize why I do theatre — when [the show] can connect with people in that way. But hopefully, also, connect with people for whom that is not their life, [and] somehow they recognize the humanity or the situation of the family — trying to love somebody who's not easy to love.
|photo by Carol Rosegg|
When I told my friend what this work was about, she said, "I hope it depicts a child on the higher end of the autism spectrum. There's not always a happy ending."
DJ: Right. Some people have said to me, "Well, aren't you afraid that people are going to leave the theatre thinking that all people with autism are like this?" And, some people say, "Well, this [play] is not going to make people think very nice things about people with autism." As humans, we're all different, and everyone with autism is different. I can't make a story about something general… It has to be about a specific [case] — that's where the truth is.
You've said before that the play is based on your life. What made you want to tell your story? Was it a cathartic experience?
DJ: Well, I didn't start out actually writing a show. I'm a person who writes to sort of figure out what's going on in my life. I've always been a journaler, and I've written some non-fiction essays about parenting a child with autism. So I started just writing down some experiences when [my family] had a particularly difficult summer that's very similar to what happens in the play. And, [after] talking with some friends, they said, "Why aren't you writing a play? You're in theatre!" I said, "Well, this is my life; not a play. Plays have a beginning and a middle and an end, and I have no clue where my life is going!" And, a friend said, "Well, what if you just made these…characters."
What I really set out to do, when I decided to do it as a play, was create an experience for the audience where you sort of believe you're going down one road, and suddenly the world drops out from under you and you discover you're in a different place. That's what our lives are like. For example, I'm getting ready to do a guest lecture at one of the universities here in town, and two minutes before I'm supposed to go start talking with the class, I get a phone call from the police that the [school] bus is on the side of the road, and someone has to go pick up my son because he attacked someone on the bus. So I call and take care of that…and walk out and do my lecture. It's like having all these different experiences rolled into a day. I set out to take the audience on that ride — jump on board, and keep your hands and feet inside the car because it's going to be a bumpy ride! It's not a play about "autism awareness." If I want to teach, I'll teach. Plays, for me, are about raising interesting questions, having an experience and walking in the shoes of other people.
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