Friday, November 1, 2013

'Falling' Rises to the Challenge at the Rogue Machine by M.R. Hunter

Playwright Deanna Jent's West Coast premiere tackles the subject of autism with emotional verve and reveals the splintering effect it has on family dynamics. Unlike the lighter approach taken in the West Coast premiere of 'On the Spectrum' at the Fountain Theatre earlier this year, Jent's stormy drama paints a devastating but heartening portrait of daily life turned askew.

Routine is anything but in the typical sense of the word in the Martin household. Instead, it follows a patient but guardedly regimented schedule for 18-year-old, Josh who enjoys pulling a rope attached to a box filled with feathers. Like any other young child, Josh doesn't want to go to school, but his parents, Bill and Tami use a reward strategy to encourage their son to the bus.

The play begins with the relatable strain of child rearing, except in the case of Josh, he is a tall, young man entering into adulthood, easily falling into fits and starts without the ability to control his actions. There is a palpable undercurrent of worry and a hypersensitivity to potential danger. Jent slowly weaves the fear and frustrations of a mother caught between her primal urge to nurture and her own need for self-preservation. Her teenage daughter, Lisa observes with markedly petulant adolescent buoyed by an empathetic generating anger towards her brother.

When Bill's mother Sue comes to visit for the weekend, the insensitivity from a stranger's perspective lends this play further dynamism and conflict. Sue, an elderly Christian grandmother means well, but her ignorance ignites a firestorm. Her age and steadfast belief, "God can heal," is as offensive as it is painful for the Martin's to hear. It is through her, Jent uses Sue as a mouthpiece for those who erroneously attribute autism as a stage of development that can in essence be grown out of with the right tools and parenting. Not only do the Martin's struggle with their own circumstances, but they must face unfeeling criticism from their own relations.      

Jent's two-pronged "issue play" provides a stark, but beautifully depicted devoted mother at odds with her conscience. The other perspective offers audiences to reconsider assumptions regarding autism in all its forms. A sometimes heavy-handed approach tips the play's focus and tries to mightily to go for metaphoric allusions and theatrical progression for the sake of spectacle or pseudo-realism. In this, Jent's work lacks artistic nuance and mature style, but the message is far more relevant. It is a contemporary, timely examination from a playwright who lives it and knows too well the pitfalls of hard choices, a failed system and the lack of outreach.

Director Elina de Santos does some of her best work in this production. Thoughtful staging utilizes the beautifully crafted set by the impeccable Stephanie Kerley Schwartz. De Santos pays close attention to the character's and their motivations by keeping Josh in his personal area far from the dining room where the adults sneak a quick drink to calm their ever-fraying nerves. Although the script departs with an unsatisfying literary device in the "dream sequence," De Santos curbs it well into reality until the fantastical becomes a harsh, heartbreaking illusion.

The cast is impeccable and work cohesively throughout. Karen Landry as Sue is believably sympathetic as she dotters around with her Bible and cane. Tara Windley shines in her character's rage and owns it without overplaying the teenage histrionics. Anna Khaja is an interesting choice as Josh's mother Tami, but she gives the maternal role a fierce loyalty and passionate appeal. Matthew Elkins touchingly lends the father Bill a gentlemanly, understated acceptance in his fate. The star of this vehicle however is Matt Little as Josh. He embodies the confusion, the humor and the physicality with feeling authenticity and moving innocence.

This is not a "feel good" drama. It isn't a popcorn muncher either. It is a hard, heartbreaking but ultimately optimistic play about the incredible lengths of parental love. Autism touches everyone. As a community we fall short in providing awareness and assistance, even if it is just an ear. "Falling" isn't about giving up, but the unrelenting ability to rise for our children despite the odds.

Runs through Dec. 1
Fridays & Saturdays @ 8pm
Sundays @ 3pm
Rogue Machine in Theatre Theater
5041 Pico Blvd.
LA, CA 90019
Tickets: $30
PH: 855-585-5185

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