That Julia Murney sure can sing — in “Wicked,” “The Wild Party,” and in orchestral concerts, among other musical venues. But the notes she hits in “Falling,” Deanna Jent’s hard-hitting drama about family life in a household with a severely autistic child, are the sounds of a mother’s grief. There’s no happy ending and not a lot of hope to this disturbing play, which originated at the Mustard Seed Theater in St. Louis, where the talented scribe is a.d., but it pulls the audience into its soul-searching debate about the limited lose-lose options for the parents of severely handicapped children.
Let’s hear it for the props designer, Zachary Roland, who has filled John C. Stark’s believably lived-in set of the dining and family room of a middle-class home with scads of toys and games that would keep a mentally handicapped child both entertained and distracted from the kind of behaviors (like masturbating on the couch) that make people cringe.
There are jigsaw puzzles, toy trucks, books, DVDs, and computer games galore, all ritualistically arranged in a perfect obsessive-compulsive way. But the most inventive game is a homemade box of feathers that rewards the player with a blizzard of softness kissing his face.
Toys and games were probably distraction enough when the autistic Josh was a little boy. But now that he’s 18 years old — and played by the extremely large, extremely strong (but yes, extremely kind and understanding) Daniel Everidge — it takes more than a handful of feathers to keep his aggressive behavior under control.
“I know, it’s scary,” mother Tami Martin (marvelous Murney) admits to the trained therapists and caretakers who keep quitting on her or tossing Josh out of their daycare centers. But she doesn’t know, not really. Tami is so used to being physically attacked by Josh (and so adept at talking him down) that she really can’t see what a danger he presents.
Josh’s father and younger sister are key players in this risky charade. Sister Lisa (played by Jacey Powers without a trace of self-consciousness) mainly stays out of her brother’s way, in anticipation of when he figures out the ways of birds and bees. But Tami couldn’t manage the damage control without the help of her husband, Bill (Daniel Pearce, making a great case for supportive men).
Working as a well-coordinated team, the parents observe an intricate system of code words, game-playing, and solid child psychology to keep Josh from tearing down their house of cards. But unlike Tami, Bill is no longer willing to sacrifice their marriage to keep Josh out of an institutional setting where he may not be safe and will surely not be loved.
These growing tensions are subtly heightened under the direction of Lori Adams, who also helmed the Mustard Seed premiere. But it takes a visit from Bill’s mother for something to snap.
Granny Sue (Celia Howard, another asset to this strong cast) means well when she urges Tami and Bill to put their trust in God and urges Lisa to come live with her. But her efforts to help radically shift the household dynamic. Lisa confesses that she hates Josh and wishes him gone — or dead. Tami admits that she’s not even looking for an alternative home. And good-natured Bill reveals his despair.
If his mother insists on praying, he says, “pray for programs and housing options and staff for people like Josh.” And while she’s at it, she can “pray that people will stop praying and take some action.”
Sensitively presented though it may be, “Falling” is a difficult play to watch, and even harder to think about. But you’ll be glad you toughed it out.