Review: 'Falling' Makes Triumphant Return to Mustard Seed Theatre

 In Culture

I didn’t see “Falling,” Deanna Jent’s original play about a family coping with a severely autistic son that premiered at Mustard Seed Theatre, in 2011. It was wildly successful. After extending the run, the play went on to a triumphant run Off-Broadway in New York (thanks to local producer Terry Schnuck), then had a successful run in L.A., a performance in Michigan at Meadow Book Theatre which just closed. Now it has just returned home to Mustard Seed in a production that reunites the original cast, and it’s being professionally videotaped as part of the new Mustard Seed Autism Education Project.

Daniel Lanier, Greg Johnston and Michelle Hand in "Falling"

Daniel Lanier, Greg Johnston and Michelle Hand in “Falling”

Naturally, with all that success, expectations for the revival were high, and high expectations are hard to meet. It is surprising then, that those high expectations didn’t come up to this play’s kneecaps. From the very first moments, the audience is absorbed into the eggshell world that Jent has drawn—a world full of tension where a beep, sudden noise or a barking dog can quickly escalate into a dangerous, violent situation, or a box of feathers mounted high on a wall can make everything alright again. It’s a world you most likely have never seen before, and it’s one you’re not likely to soon forget. The play is, simply put, emotionally devastating.

Greg Johnston, Daniel Lanier and Michelle Hand in "Falling" Photo by John Lamb

Greg Johnston, Daniel Lanier and Michelle Hand in “Falling”
Photo by John Lamb

Daniel Lanier portrays autistic son Josh with such commitment that there is never any sense of an actor’s performance; he simply is. What sort of world is he living in that falling feathers can so amuse him or a triviality can send him spinning into the consuming darkness of panic? The family succeeds—through their frantic and desperate routines—to distract and calm Josh down while the audience draws their collective breath. Michelle Hand as the mother, Tami, gives a powerful, adept performance, as does Greg Johnston as dad Bill. We feel their frustration and share in their struggle to just get past this; not past this day or week or month, but just get past this minute. We’ll take the next minute as it comes.

Daniel Lanier, Greg Johnston and Michelle Hand in "Falling" Photo by John Lamb

Daniel Lanier, Greg Johnston and Michelle Hand in “Falling”
Photo by John Lamb

Kate Donelly does fine work as daughter Lisa, who has our empathy as a kid who is growing up in a family where 99 percent of the attention goes to the other kid by necessity. Carmen Russell, as grandmother Sue, comes to visit and finds the situation more extreme than expected, like Josh sticking his hand down his pants and fondling himself, to which the family can only encourage Josh to take it in the bedroom, because there is no demanding of Josh. There is no physically stopping Josh from doing anything. There is only distraction. Sue, in her religious naivete, demands that prayer will fix everything. “God denied us that prayer years ago,” Tami finally blurts out, which reminds us that we have only been living this struggle for an hour, the family has been living it for 20 years or so. That realization has an impact.

The play succeeds not simply because Jent has shocked us by presenting a realistic picture of a family coping with autism, but also because it is a tight, elegantly crafted play that not only explores several big, important themes—such as how a family stays together against such a monumental struggle, how one maintains faith in the face of your God’s seeming indifference to suffering, and the lack of adequate, safe housing facilities for autistic individuals—but also shines as a theatrical achievement; the pacing is relentless, the drama sincere and realistic, and the tears are wrenched from the audience not with cheap manipulation, but with truth. There is also a surreal scene near the end that is so dramatically efficient that it is jarring. “Falling” is a masterful work. At the performance’s conclusion, nobody in the audience moved. Everyone remained in their seat, stunned and dazed.

If live theater is supposed to teach us about the human condition, give us empathy and understanding of other people and touch us deeply, then “Falling” is as fine a play as it ever was, and one that will remain important for many years to come.

“Falling” continues at Mustard Seed Theatre through May 4. For tickets or more information, visit the Mustard Seed website.

Follow Christopher Reilly on Twitter @ChristoReilly

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