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Glenda Frank

The Family in Crisis

“Falling” by Deanna Jent
Directed by Lori Adams
Minetta Lane Theatre, 18 Minetta Lane, NYC.
Tuesday at 7 PM, Wednesday through Saturday at 8 PM,
with matinees Wednesday & Saturday at 2 PM, and Sunday at 3 PM.
Sept. 27 - Dec. 30, 2012.
Tickets begin at $39.50 from TicketMaster.com, 800-982-2787, or at the Box Office.
For more information, visit www.FallingPlay.com.

Pundits have often advised aspiring authors to write about what they know, which has yielded shelves of self-indulgent novels, confessional poetry, and plays without much insight into the human condition. I suppose the advice is designed to overcorrect pretentiousness and posturing, but it’s hard to get an artistic grasp on events that are more than raw material. Deanna Jent, is the rare and exciting exception. Her play “Falling” is not just an emotional roller coaster and a marvellous vehicle for actors, but it’s a transcendent voyage into the heart of a family in crisis.

“Falling” is the story of autism and love, the story of 18-year old Josh Martin (Daniel Everidge) who is mostly uncontrolled id with a tentative overlay of training. He has to be guarded every moment because the least upset will trigger violence. He doesn’t want to hurt anyone; he just wants his way. Did I mention he is portrayed by Daniel Everidge, a brilliant actor who is also supersized -- so that his presence on the stage and in the family is a Paul Bunyon, a King Kong, a force to be reckoned with? If he flails, furniture breaks and when his attack is directed, as it is, toward his mother who is trying to soothe him, it is terrifying -- and potentially deadly.

The working class parents, who are at their wits’ ends, have devised a clever variety of diversions to change his moods. This delicate balance between outbreak and calm is one of the fascinations this play holds. Falling is Josh’s game with feathers. When he is impossible, they direct him to a string. He stands beneath a box on a shelf, pulls the string, and out flutters a rain of white feathers. He laughs -- with pure abandonment. That laughter signs that the crisis is over. He wants to do it again. He too wants to be soothed and happy. He is at once frightening and us in our need to instant gratification.

After, the mother (Julia Murney) pours herself a drink. She too is us, a postmodern responsible adult who juggles the bills and meals, and handles the tornado who is the son she loves and refuses to send away. Dad (Daniel Pearce) is a partner, a loving husband. The teen daughter’s (Jacey Powers) only fantasy is to have a dog. But to get a dog her brother, who has fits when he hears a dog barking, must vanish. She wants a normal life. The sacrifices are heartbreaking. Into this mix walks Grandma (Celia Howeard) with a sugar-coated view of the family’s life. A devout woman, she turns to the easy answers of prayer and faith, but she is soon thrown from her comfort zone into the safety of a bedroom where Josh has no access. The play does not mock faith. Faith gets them through some of the crises, but it makes very clear that other help is needed.

For all its strength “Falling” might have been a slice of life, a plea for more support services, if the playwright had not included -- without warning -- a moment for dreams. She allows us to meet another version of her son, someone who comes to visit. He’s not a top scientist, a brilliant painter, or a hunk. He’s an ordinary joe. And for a moment we are not sure what happened -- if we are witnessing a trick of double casting or a new wrinkle. But that one scene becomes our touchstone, our gauge for measuring the family tragedy. And it feels like a tragedy -- one that we know is affecting thousands of lives across America. When Josh slips back into one of his exhausting routines, we are the family. We understand the despair in a new way. “Falling” is a masterful, very moving play with twist after twist as the playwright explores the world of the Martin family.

It’s a delight to see Broadway performers bring their considerable talent to off-Broadway. Daniel Pearce, from “25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” and Julia Murney, from “Wicked,” “The Wild Party” (Drama Desk nom.) and “Queen of the Mist,” are impressive in their close-ups on the smaller stage. All the performances directed by Lori Adams are affecting and believable, but Daniel Everidge transforms the tour-de-force role of Josh into one of the season’s best performances. Deanna Jent, a Professor of Theatre at Fontbonne University and Artistic Director of Mustard Seed Theatre, St. Louis, Missouri, is the mother of an autistic son and several daughters. Realistic living-dining room set design by John C. Stark adds to the sense of ordinary life and entrapment.


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