‘Falling’ takes brutally honest look at family coping with autism

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Justin Tsatsa (left) and Amy Johnson in Interrobang Theatre Project’s Chicago premiere of “Falling,” written by Deanna Jent and directed by James Yost. | Photo by Emily Schwartz.

By the end of the first scene of Deanna Jent’s “Falling,” you’ll be exhausted. Not because Interrobang Theatre’s production of the 70-minute drama is tedious, but but because the playwright has so vividly depicted the morning routine of a family coping with a severely autistic 18-year-old. In the beleaguered Martin home, the simplest of tasks – putting on a back pack, turning on blender, getting out the door – are complex feats that require equal amounts of brute physical strength and relentless mental strategizing.

‘Falling’ Recommended When: Through April 16 Where: Interrobang Theatre at the Athenaeum Studio 2 Theatre, 2936 N. Southport Tickets: $17-$24 Info: Interrobangtheatre.org

Tami (Amy Johnson) and Bill Martin (Nick Freed) love their 18-year-old son Josh (Justin Tsatsa) dearly. But they’re rapidly reaching a point where it’s no longer feasible – or safe – to keep their Joshie at home. Their marriage is frayed to a thread, their daughter Lisa (Tristin Hall) exists in a near-constant state of frustration and rage – she can’t bring friends home, she can’t count on her parents undivided attention, she is always in the shadow of her demanding older brother.

Jent ratchets up the pressure further by bringing Grammy Sue (Heidi Katz) in for a visit. Bill’s mother is certain if they all just pray hard enough, God will cure Josh.

Directed by James Yost, “Falling” is a harrowing and brutally honest depiction of a loving family stretched to the breaking point. It feels almost prescient. April is National Autism Awareness Month, but this April, that awareness comes in tandem with a national budget proposal that could gut many of the programs that families like the Martins rely on for survival.

Jent’s dialogue almost eerily anticipates the potential healthcare crisis. When Grammy Sue tells Tami and Bill that the best thing they can do is pray for a miracle, Bill snaps back: “If you’re going to pray, pray for programs and staff and group homes.” As Tami succinctly adds, there are “waiting lists for waiting lists” to get people like Josh into group homes that can meet their needs.

In the meantime, Josh – built like a linebacker, quick to uncontrolled rage and oblivious of his own strength – has become dangerous. Amy plays down that danger, even after Josh slams her head into a wall and attacks Grammy Sue. It falls to Lisa to snap her mother with a harsh dose of reality. “It only takes one time to be dead, mom,” Lisa spits, “One time.”

Jent’s play isn’t without flaws. The ending feels both abrupt and incomplete, as if Jent couldn’t quite figure out how to end things. There’s also a 911 call and a dream sequence that are troublesome – it’s not entirely clear whether the call actually happens or is the product of an exhausted mind that’s veered into a nightmare. Given the heightened stakes the need for emergency services represents, that lack of clarity is troublesome.

But those issues are almost quibbles. Tsatsa gives a remarkably accurate and deeply moving portrayal of a young man with severe Autism. It’s a fearless award-worthy performances, from Josh’s “happy dance” of delight under a blizzard of colored feathers to his cringingly inappropriate expression of his own sexuality to the out-of-control tantrums that put everyone around him at risk.

As Tami, Johnson captures the world of guilt, fear and overwhelmed weariness of Josh’s mother. As Bill, Freed nails the frustration of a father rapidly approaching the tattered end of his rope. Hall instills the side-eye sarcasm endemic to all teenagers with a layer of profound anger at constantly having to take a backseat to the demands of her brother. The cast’s weak spot is Katz’s Grammy Sue; her dialogue has a recitative quality and rarely sounds spontaneous.

”Falling” is a drama of importance and power. And given the prominence of health care in the news, it couldn’t be more relevant.

Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.

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