Review - Falling
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by Michael Dale
When 18-year-old Josh pulls the string hanging from a box propped up on a shelf in his family’s living room, he gets showered with dozens of soft white feathers. The mile-wide smile and limitlessly joyful expression on his face, and the happy tingle you can imagine must be tickling his body all over, tells you that playing with this homemade toy is something he does frequently to bring him comfort and momentary, completely innocent happiness.
And when Josh nearly chokes the life out of his mother, easily lifting her from the ground in his powerful arms and effortlessly dragging her across the room, it’s also something he has done before, though not as frequently. The frightened expression on his face tells you he is defending himself against something he can’t comprehend, but as soon as he can be distracted with a puzzle or his beloved marbles, all fear is gone and his attention is focused on a new activity while his mother tries regaining her breath and puts her hands on the places where the new bruises will show up.
Josh is autistic and while his degree of autism may differ from that of others, playwright Deanna Jent has based her beautiful, heartbreaking, complex and desperately hopeful drama, Falling, on her experiences with her own autistic son.
Daniel Everidge, the actor who gives an outstanding performance as Josh, balancing the character’s pathos and unintentional menace, is an imposingly large and tall man who scoots about with a stiffened upper body and blurts out responses to questions in short sentences. He can seem like a gentle angel when relaxed on the sofa watching his Jungle Book DVD until he starts masturbating to it. Common noises like the blender running or a dog barking outside scare him into a panic and throughout the evening Everidge realistically keeps the audience braced for any unexpected reaction.
Jent says that Falling is abouT Loving someone who is difficult to love. Bearing the brunt of that difficulty is Josh’s mother Tami, rivetingly played by Julia Murney with a desperately weary cheerfulness. Murney has made a career of giving excellent acting performances in musicals and while Falling doesn’t require her to sing, what makes her characterization so tragic is that Tami is continually required to give a performance for her son; making a happy game out of each everyday situation in order to keep Josh under control and quickly improvising to counter any resistance without scaring him into violent outbursts.
In many ways, Tami reacts like a victim of domestic abuse; turning to alcohol for quick comfort and being the first to defend her attacker when others fear for her safety. Her obligation to love and protect her son outweighs any concern for herself and she rejects any intimacy with her husband, Bill (Daniel Pearce), who has also learned the routines of entertaining Josh in order to get through the day. Their teenage daughter, Lisa (Jacey Powers), has given up trying to deal with her brother, afraid of his strength and resentful for being deprived of a normal childhood.
There’s no plot in Falling; just a finely detailed portrait of this family’s life played in ninety thoroughly intriguing, sometimes shocking, minutes. What stands out about director Lori Adams’ subtle production is how the family members see the intricate system of code words and distractions they’ve developed to help handle Josh as just a normal part of everyday living. They’ve been at this for so long that, instead of immediacy, we get the emotionless daily routine. This is especially apparent after Bill manages to pacify his son and diffuse an attack on Tami. It may seem like he doesn’t do enough to comfort her once the immediate threat is calmed, but most likely this has happened enough times that she has made it clear to him what she needs when this happens.
The play is set on a day when Bill’s mother, Grammy Sue (Celia Howard), comes for one of her infrequent visits. Never having seen the fully-grown Josh in action, the character becomes the audience’s eyes and ears, taking in the experience for the first time and becoming a sounding board for Tami, Bill and Lisa to talk about home life issues and express their feelings. Eventually, the playwright introduces a situation that allows them to think of how much happier they would be if Josh was no longer there; a thought that’s painful to consider, but understandable nevertheless.
Grammy Sue is established as someone who believes that prayer and the church can solve any problem, but Howard does a fine job in showing her gradual understanding of the situation’s complexities. Pearce's Bill is determined to be a good father and husband, despite the fact that he receives little joy from family life and although Lisa has detached herself from any relationship with her brother, Powers keeps the character sympathetic as she yearns for a reasonable amount of parental attention.
With two memorable central performances, a very strong supporting cast and a script that earns every tear it jerks from you, Falling is one of the finest theatrical productions currently offered in New York.