Unpleasant Truths On Exhilarating Theatrical Display at “Falling,” and “A Streetcar Named Desire,”

I’d certainly been looking forward to Falling after attending many of the New City Players’ lead-up events, and it certainly didn’t disappoint. The fast-paced 75-minute show never dragged or faltered, and, as promised, it offered us a rare window into the seldom represented day-to-day life of a family dealing with a severely autistic child. Timothy Mark Davis nailed the pivotal role of Josh, the 18-year old boy with severe autism around whom the play (and the characters’ lives) revolved. The endearingly childlike enthusiasm of his portrayal gave life and soul to a type of person many consider less than human.

Davis also mastered many of the unique behaviors and emotional traits common to those on the “lower-functioning” end of the autism spectrum. These included his frequent sensory “stimming” by rocking and flapping his hands, his peculiarly blinkered speech, and his blindingly singular focus. I wasn’t surprised to learn how extensively Davis had researched his role during that night’s talkback, where he also described his performance as very intuitive and the role as a chance to follow certain impulses he might naturally suppress; a scene in which Josh unabashedly sticks his hands down his pants in front of his grandmother comes to mind.

As someone on the “higher-functioning” end of the autism spectrum and thus subject to rather different sets of problems (for one thing, being so “smart” and functional at some things that no one suspects the fact that I’m hopeless I am at others), I didn’t relate much too much to Josh. However, I will admit to recognizing a bit of my mother’s almost superhuman steadfastness when it comes to dealing with my own spectrum-related issues in the character of Tami, whose motherly devotion to Josh came through so strongly that I’d be surprised if actress Arlette Del Toro wasn’t a parent herself.

This devotion was all the more impressive given her son Josh’s truly frightening capacity for violence when he is upset or overstimulated. Davis’s performance makes it clear that Josh is lashing out due to his panic, overwhelm, and inability to fully understand his surroundings rather than any innate malevolence, but when a fully grown adult male physically attacks a woman less than half his size, the potential for harm is still great.

As the person most intimately involved in Josh’s care, his mother Tami also bears the brunt of his violent tendencies, and the play features a few terrifying scenes in which she is under direct attack. Though much of Josh’s worldview and behavior is totally alien to us, Tami’s love and concern for her son’s future grabs us by the heartstrings and keeps us emotionally invested in Martin’s plight. Her description of an institution or group home for Josh as “somewhere he that he won’t be loved” hit hard.

Elizabeth Price also excelled in the less showy role of the bible-thumping Granny Sue, whose visit is the catalyst that brings Martin’s latent worries about Josh’s future to the surface. Todd Bruno likewise shined in the role of Josh’s devoted father Bill. Though Josh’s issues have understandably taken their toll on Bill’s relationship with Tami,  the father’s steadiness and his own evident love for Josh show how the two have survived as a couple for all these years.

Abby Nigro is occasionally a little mannered as Lisa, maybe too focused on being adequately “teenagery” or standoffish than on being naturalistic or the gravity of her character’s emotional reality, but she does rise to the occasion in one of the play’s most intense moments; when Lisa confronts her mother about her fears that Josh could easily kill either one of them in an out of control moment.

“it only takes once,” she says poignantly.

However, the biggest problems I found with Falling lay not with the adept cast but with the script itself. The tail end of the play is somewhat marred by a bizarre twist in which something seems to have occurred that would drastically alter the Martin’s lives, but the event is later revealed to have been a dream of Tami’s. I’m not saying that her anxious imaginings didn’t present an interesting scenario to explore; just that there may have been better, less melodramatic, and “more earned” ways to explore it. A more obviously surrealist sequence, for instance, might have made it clearer that we were inside Tami’s head.

The play’s ending is really more of a non-ending; the Martins have now become a little more open about their dissatisfaction and the need for something to change, but that’s about it. This absence of any real resolution to the family’s story is a decent strategy given the playwright’s goal was to leave the audience thinking about the social problem of our society’s lack of accommodations for autistic adults, but it was a little less narratively effective than I suspect a clearer conclusion would have been.

Luckily, the show was followed by a talkback, which gave the evening more of a sense of cohesion than the weighty loose ends left onstage. There were no straight answers there either, but there was thoughtful consideration of and conversation on a variety of spectrum-related issues. In a way, just seeing that a whole room of people, actors, and audience, both personally connected to the spectrum and not, genuinely cared about the future of autistic people of all sorts was enough to offer a smidgen of hope.

Some might think that a newly written play about autism couldn’t have less in common with the 1947 Tennessee Williams piece “A Streetcar Named Desire, ” playing until this November 3rd at esteemed company Palm Beach Dramaworks’ Don & Ann Brown theatre. Yet both plays revolve, in very different ways, around the idea of loving someone who is “hard to love”, as Falling director Jessica Schulte puts it, and around the trials and tribulations of a sensitive soul turned toxic by the harsh realities of everyday life.

Mental illness isn’t at the forefront of most discussions about A Streetcar Named Desire, but its protagonist Blanche Dubois clearly appears to be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder as well as some sort of mood and/or personality disorder. Playwright Tennessee Williams and actress Vivian Leigh, who memorably immortalized the part on film, both suffered from bipolar disorder, and that diagnosis would well explain Blanche’s bouts of frenetic activity interspersed with her periods of anxiety and withdrawal, as well as her apparent hypersexuality and eventual loss of contact with reality during the play’s conclusion.

The gorgeously dilapidated set and evocative period costumes were perfect for bringing us into the dreary and strangely beautiful world of the play.  As is often the case in our darkest tragedies, the bleak nature of the show is made bearable by the poetry of the dialogue, especially Blanche’s dialogue, and the skill and charisma of the performers.

As well as Davis captured Josh’s simplicity in Falling, Kathy McCafferty did an equally marvelous job at embodying one of the most complex and interesting characters in modern theatre in Blanche Dubois.  Blanche is thought to have been partially based on Williams’ sister Rose, whose forced lobotomy in her early adulthood colored much of her brother’s subsequent artistic work. I suspect she may have also been partially based on Williams himself, who also often wrote of feeling out of place in in ordinary human life and using his writing as a refuge. Blanche and Williams also share a tendency to self-medicate with alcohol, another fairly classic bipolar trait.

A Streetcar Named Desire was once explained to me as being about the “masks behind which we conceal our sexual selves,” and that element was also central to this production. McCafferty’s Blanche exuded sexual desire and energy even when the character was doing her damnedest to put forth an “innocent” persona, and even in her most fragile moments, her vulnerability itself seemed to be a seductive force. Courtesy of the phenomenal performance of Annie Grier, it was also clear that Stella’s tranquilizing “sexual addiction” to Stanley was her defining principle, and the animal charisma of Danny Gavigan’s Stanley didn’t hurt matters.

Like Falling, the 3-hour performance of A Streetcar Named Desire (which included 2 ten-minute intermissions) never dragged, but anyone who’s seen it knows that the devastating ending it comes to is a far more conclusive one. In a way, Josh’s loved ones did a better job at accepting his eccentricities than the people who surrounded Blanche did hers, given their abject disapproval and heart-breaking betrayal of her.

Whether it’s in someone as obviously neurodivergent as Josh or someone who, like Blanche, is secretly cracking behind a civilized façade, let’s hope these stories can teach us to look upon those suffering from a kinder eye.

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