By Jenn McKee
Just hours before going to see Deanna Jent’s “Falling” at Meadow Brook Theatre, I stood in a deserted sector of a fancy restaurant with my restless, not-remotely-hungry daughters, ages 2 and 5, while my husband took his turn eating lunch and talking with the couple at our table. (We were at a post-bar mitzvah reception.) At one point, I comforted myself by thinking, “This, too, shall pass.” For as our girls grow older, my husband and I will eventually reclaim our place among couples that get to eat a meal together, in a leisurely way, and chat up friendly strangers.
But as “Falling” makes clear, if you’re a parent of a child with severe autism, hoping for a more independent, carefree day-to-day future may feel more like a wistful wish than a built-in expectation.
The play focuses on the Martin family. Parents Tami (Sarab Kamoo) and Bill (Chris Hietikko) work through various daily rituals and tricks to keep autistic, sometimes aggressive, 18-year-old Josh (Daniel Everidge) on an even keel, while Josh’s teenage sister Lisa (Lizzie Rainville) vies for attention.
Bill and Tami, despite being perpetually breathless from the effort of keeping everything together, manage to retain a sense of humor and camaraderie, but when Bill’s mother, Grammy Sue (Carolyn Gillespie), comes to visit, the family’s delicate balance is thwarted.
Everidge earned a nomination for a Drama Desk Award and a Lucille Lortel Award in the New York production of “Falling,” so it’s no surprise that his performance is one of the primary draws of Meadow Brook’s (70-minute) production, directed by Travis Walter. Yes, Everidge looks older than 18 – the age Josh is supposed to be – but this visual disconnect is quickly forgiven in the larger scope of Everidge’s embodiment of Josh.
For within moments of Everidge’s entrance, we see Josh’s immense capacity for joy in simple things – like a box jerry-rigged to rain down white feathers on his head – and, based on Tami’s emphatic guidance, his potential to detonate if not warned about things like a blender being turned on to make a smoothie. Everidge’s performance is a stunner in part because you key into Josh’s physical lexicon within moments, recognizing the ticks that indicate a looming storm; plus, while a pitfall of such a role involves an actor overdoing it, Everidge seems to establish a restrained tone that’s exactly right.
Kamoo and Hietkko also do great work as loving parents who, in turn, feel happy, terrified, hopeful, angry, hopeless, frustrated, relieved and spent. Hietkko conveys a likable decency as Bill, so that when he and Tami get into an argument, we sympathize with his perspective as much as with hers. Kamoo, meanwhile, takes your breath away as a mother who deeply, deeply loves the child that now, assuming the body of a man, threatens her with violence on a semi-regular basis.
Jen Price Fick’s scenic design brings the Martin family home to vivid life, while Liz Goodall designed the characters’ costumes. Mike Duncan designed the show’s crucial sound elements – Josh watching videos at a loud volume, a barking dog, music, etc. – and Reid G. Johnson’s lighting design set each scene’s tone and underscored the atmosphere.
Yet the play has its flaws. Josh’s aggression likely didn’t bloom overnight, so Grammy Sue’s obliviousness to his behaviors rings a bit of a false note. Kamoo’s rock-out fantasy dance to Heart’s “Barracuda” while cleaning up felt way too long and self-conscious; and an extended dream sequence, while offering some moments and ideas otherwise hard to express (not to mention an impressive acting feat by Everidge), ultimately feels like a manipulative cop out on the part of the playwright.
What Jent gets absolutely right, though, is the feel of a real family in the throes of an ongoing struggle. So while the play’s end isn’t neatly tied up, thus leaving some things ambiguous, the choice only makes sense. For no matter what choices this family makes about Josh’s long-term care – and there’s significant disagreement on this point – the decisions will haunt each family member and, in some ways, shape them, forging not only the sense of who they are, and who they will become. And stakes don’t get much higher than that.
Meadow Brook Theatre, 2200 N. Squirrel Road, Rochester. Wednesday-Sunday through April 13. $25-40. 248-377-3300. http://www.mbtheatre.com