Graceful writing, great acting, exquisite direction, suspense, profound subject matter—you rarely find even one of those elements in a contemporary play opening in commercial New York theater, and never all in the same play at the same time. That’s what makes Falling such a shock. It teaches you something and leaves you sated—and it rocks.
For 75 minutes without intermission, this play about the profound effects of an autistic child on a long-suffering family packs a huge emotional punch in the brief time it’s been allotted down at the Minetta Lane Theatre Off Broadway. Deanna Jent, the author, has based it on her own family. And Lori Adams, the director, has wrenched every ounce of juice from its reservoir of emotions, like water from a dish towel. From the minute the main character enters, a humongous shadow of toxic danger looms in the rooms of the Martin family, sucking the oxygen out of the air. This would be Josh, an autistic 18-year-old who has already lived longer than anyone predicted. Josh is played with electrifying force by an actor from San Antonio, Texas, named Daniel Everidge. Gigantic and overweight, his limbs never hit the spot where they ought to be and his tongue has a mind of its own. Walking around in circles, tracing invisible objects with his fingers, fixated on phrases (“No school—school is stuck, no school—school is stuck!”) that never end, his head protruding from his neck like a stork’s, Mr. Everidge does not lead you into the darkness of his mental disorder with soft gloves. He kicks you out of your senses. From the minute he sails onstage, terrifying his parents and sending his sister fleeing from the room, I thought, “What a shame this remarkable talent will never work again—there are so few roles for autistic actors.” Mr. Everidge is mind-bogglingly believable.
The rest of the cast that revolves around him is equally fine in less showy roles. Julia Murney takes a detour from her usual musical comedy gigs to play his mother—a woman who sacrificed a normal life when Josh was born, preferring to care for him at home, away from judgmental critics and frightened onlookers. Sometimes, in an unusual moment of privacy, she sings along with rock tunes, indulging her fantasy of being a pop star—a dream she abandoned long ago. Daniel Pearce is the battered father, wrestling with the burden of putting his son in a group home. Jacey Powers is the sister, whose own needs fall on deaf ears. Celia Howard is the visiting grandmother, sheltered from the truth because she lives so far away, but suddenly slammed into reality when her grandson repeatedly pulls a string attached to a box on an upper shelf that empties a pile of feathers on his head, screeching with mad glee. Strapped into a child-restraint device that circles his body like a backpack, Josh further leaves the family aghast when he reaches inside his clothes to twist his nipples or masturbate.
Yes! This soul-rending play—from what I know about families living with autism, Down syndrome and other mental challenges (more than you know)—is the first time so much medical and psychological research has been expounded onstage. Ms. Jent, who appeared the night I saw the play and participated in a post-performance Q&A, gets the agonizing facts right. It’s a way to keep from falling into a pit of sadness and self-pity from which there is no escape. It’s a really hard play to watch, especially when Josh turns violent and almost kills the parents. But you do learn things. Thanks for sharing.
You learn how unselfishness can lead to self-destruction when years of trial and error never pay off. Every family activity is disrupted, personal belongings are wrecked, a simple family meal together in peace takes on the nerve-jangling tension of a bleak melodrama because the sight of people eating food grosses Josh out. Worse still, a lifetime of Josh’s presence has left everyone questioning his or her own sanity. Living with the threat of potential carnage has turned their existence into an empty landscape. What’s the alternative? Institutions for autistic people are unsafe, and there are long waiting lists to get in. Social workers and home care providers run in the opposite direction. The sister, robbed of her own voice, tries to conceal how much she hates and resents her brother, but finally blurts “I just wish he would go away forever!” The mother elects to keep her Gethsemane at home no matter how much it means she neglects everyone else or what toll it takes on the rest of the family. The father has lost his strength as a provider and watched his marriage fall apart. The grandmother’s answer is prayer. In the end, nothing changes. Life goes on, despite the occasional fantasy in which Josh does indeed die, opening a door to survival that slams shut again when the dream ends.
Falling is traumatizing. It is also broadening and enlightening. The writing is precise and dead to rights. The direction gives the impression that the actors have been left enough space to make discoveries of their own. The evening goes in enough unorthodox directions to keep you transfixed. How wonderful that it goes on just long enough to make you want a sequel.