Tami and Bill Martin love their son Josh. Call it a difficult love. Josh is 18 and severely autistic. When Josh gets upset, which he does unpredictably, he can turn violent, pulling his mother's hair and choking her. Soon after, he lies on the living room floor in a fetal position repeating "I'm sorry" as a mantra.
In some ways, Deanna Jent's 2012 social-issue drama Falling (in its West Coast premiere at Rogue Machine) recalls Yasmina Reza's 2008 comedy, God of Carnage, as both are about the ties that bind parents to their children. In Reza's satire, one set of parents visits a second set in order to forge a strategy to cope with the son of one couple who knocked out two of the other couple's son's teeth with a stick. As each couple becomes an ever stronger advocate for the appalling behavior of its own children, decorum and civility fray among the adults.
Falling contains almost no such satire or humor. Its study of a family dynamic, and some appalling behavior stemming from Josh's autism, is entirely in earnest.
It seems as though Jent's purpose is to convey, via kitchen and living-room realism (on a naturalistically detailed set by Stephanie Kerley Schwartz), the daily rites of coping with Josh (Matt Little), like the inverse of an entire genre of plays in which middle-aged adults have to fathom what to do with Mom or Dad, whose memories are slipping as they become increasingly abusive or incompetent. When comes the moment when the compassionate kids have to put Ma or Pa in a home — for their own good as well as that of their children?
A similar strain tears at the already strained marriage between Tami and Bill (Anna Khaja and Matthew Elkins). Therapists will no longer work with Josh because he's too strong and dangerous. Bill, and the couple's teenage daughter Lisa (Tara Windley), argue that he should be institutionalized — a prospect Tami can't bear. Lisa unapologetically wishes that Josh would go away. She wants a dog, but can't have one because barking upsets Josh. Almost everything upsets Josh.
Bill's Bible-toting mother (Karen Landry), who, inexplicably, doesn't seem to have a full comprehension of Josh's malady despite her having known about it for 18 years, offers Lisa a home away from home. Further wounding her mother, Lisa blossoms at the very thought of a Josh-free environment.
There is one surreal flourish in which we're invited to mistake Tami's dream for reality, and that does lift the play for a while above the train tracks on which its journey is an otherwise schematic glide to its destination.
Fortunately, Elina de Santos' caring direction of a first-tier cast more than compensates for the play's modest ambitions. This starts with the repartee and the chemistry between the spouses. This kind of naturalism requires a sense of authenticity. The rites in which both husband and wife cajole, calm, discipline and encourage Josh are nothing if not authentic. Both Khaja and Elkins wear exhaustion not just on their faces but also in the methodical way they cross the stage — broken only when Khaja puts on some music and dances wildly, free-form, like a banshee. One could imagine such dancing as the only joy she has. That, and the sips of wine and shots of liquor that get her through her long days.
Sometimes the husband and wife snipe at each other, but a few moments after a volley of sarcastic buckshot born of unrelenting tension, affection between them emerges — a peck-kiss, for example, though it's hard to tell if that gesture is actually affection or more of a coping strategy. Either way, you want to stick around to find out.
Then there's Little's ever-so-studied portrayal of the autistic young man — the way he grabs his head with both hands when tension starts to rise, as it so often does; the delight he feels after pulling a string attached to a box on the wall so that the box tilts, sending its contents of feathers tumbling down onto him, like snowflakes; his obliviousness to the social awkwardness of reaching inside his trousers and fondling his privates; his rabid devotion to his train set; the rocking body language that transmits the signal that something here is neurologically off; the crescendo of a panic attack brought on by a dog barking or some other incidental sound.
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It's a marvelous impersonation of a man afflicted. These are the kinds of performances that generally win awards.
And these are the kinds of plays that garner respect for their ability to depict aberrations often relegated to hospitals. But I'm not sure they represent some triumph of imagination. Rather, they represent the lesser triumph of authenticity.
The play is really a study in the costs of Josh's autism to his parents' marriage. It's ever so simple, and small. And though it depicts a sliver of life with truthfulness, it's still just a soap opera with an intriguing quirk.
FALLING | By Deanna Jent | Presented by Rogue Machine Theatre, 5041 Pico Blvd., Mid-City | Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through Dec. 1. | (855) 585-5185 | roguemachinetheatre.com