PLAYBILL BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Deanna Jent, Playwright of the Off-Broadway Drama Falling

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10 Nov 2012

Daniel Everidge, Julia Murney and Daniel Pearce
Photo by Carol Rosegg

One of my favorite moments in the show is when Julia Murney's character, Tami, said to her husband, "I either have to live with the fear of my son being aggressive at home or the fear of sending him off to a place where no one will love him." And, as she acknowledges her home, she said, "I choose this fear." It was moving.
DJ: In the [post-show] talkbacks, it's really hard for people to accept the fact that there is no good choice. Many people in the talkbacks will say, "Of course there are places for those kids to go," and I'll say, "Well, sometimes there are, and sometimes there aren't… And, when there are, they're not always good places." What [Tami] says is real. I'm not exaggerating any of that! We want there to be a happy ending. It's hard to live in the tension of reality and still try to hang onto some hope.

[SPOILER ALERT!] Tell me about writing the sequence in which something extraordinary and shocking happens to Josh — and Tami approaches a sense of relief. Was it emotional for you to write?
DJ: Well, the whole thing was emotional for me to write. The idea of having to let go of the dream of who your child will [grow up to] be is something that came up early for me. And, like any grief issue, it still raises its head from time to time… You have these moments of, "I wish they could just be out of pain," and then you feel guilty because [you think], "Am I wishing they would be dead?" If you're dealing with a difficult child or a relative who has an addiction problem or something, you just have these human moments of dreaming — wishing — it was gone, and imagining what your life could be…and then dealing with having had that emotion. It's not something that people talk about, but I will say that many women have come up to me after the show and kind of whispered in my ear, "Thank you for putting in the dream sequence" — like it's this little shameful secret we have for some reason.

What kind of conversations did you have with Julia Murney in rehearsals?
DJ: Well, with the whole cast, I had the wonderful luxury of just being able to spend time with them early in the process [and] talk about the backstory. I just said, "This is my life. The characters are not me, but a lot of what happened to me is in here." So I offered up my experience and feelings as a starting point for them. And then I was gone enough from rehearsal so that they could find the characters and not feel like they had to somehow be imitating me or my family. I know that they talked about — both Julia and Daniel Everidge, who plays Josh — feeling like, in order to honor this story, they needed to try to make it as much like me and my son. Then, of course, [they] both realized — with the help of the director, [Lori Adams] — you take that experience, but it's you as an actor taking those things on.


Daniel Everidge and Julia Murney
photo by Carol Rosegg

Was your son able to come to the opening of the show?
DJ: No. "Pretend" is a concept that he doesn't understand. Many people on the autism spectrum are very black-and-white thinkers — very literal, concrete thinkers — so pretend is difficult. When we had the show in St. Louis [at the Mustard Seed Theatre], a family brought a teenage son who was on the [autism] spectrum, and they were, like most of us, prepared that it might not go well. They sat next to the exit and, of course, had a plan — the dad could take the son home if needed, and the mom could stay. Everything went fine until the first incident of violence where Josh grabs his mom's hair, and the boy got very upset and started standing up, so the dad took him right out. It didn't disrupt the show, but the dad wrote to me later — in talking to his son, he said, "What happened?" And, the son said, "Well, that boy was hurting her and no one was helping." He didn't understand, of course, that this was pretend.

Theatre Development Fund has offered autism-friendly performances of The Lion King
DJ: Our cast went to The Lion King performance. When we were in rehearsals, there was a TDF autism-friendly performance, and they went — not to see the show, but to watch the families come in. They said it was a life-changing experience for them — to watch all the kinds of families, the vast varieties of people and how joyful they were at having a place where they could come and feel accepted and enjoy themselves as a family. One of the things that I think may not be immediately clear from Falling is the sense of isolation that this family has. You can't invite friends over, and even relatives coming to visit is difficult.

Read the Playbill feature about autism-friendly Broadway performances

( staff writer Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)

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