Falling: Theater Review

Powerfully persuasive drama of family dealing with 18-year-old boy with severe autism. 

A family deals with a severely autistic son in a persuasive mid-Wilshire staging.

Josh Martin (Matt Little), a strapping autistic young man, easily prone to getting upset, comforts himself by standing under a basket he tilts over to shower himself with soothing feathers. As he has grown older, the continuing needs of his care, which require endless attention and escalating risk, place severe strains on the rest of his household.

The family drama and the social problem play have perhaps, for too long been staples of a conventionally earnest theater -- well meaning, maybe even enlightening. It comes as a relief that the strong and forthright Falling is not one of those shows. We spend the entire action inside the Martin home, exclusively with members of the family. Their self-contained, almost hermetic world bespeaks an emotional isolation in which whatever support exists beyond it is discouragingly inadequate. Mother Tami (Anna Khaja) must be a continual master of distraction and sensitive stratagems, not only with her son, but also with her supportive husband, Bill (Matthew Elkins), and understandably frustrated teenage daughter, Lisa (Tara Windley).

Playwright Deanna Jent excels at developing her exposition almost entirely through indirection, a skillful technique that happens to mirror the demands on everyone who deals with Josh, who can veer from endearing to dangerous at the slightest stimulus. She involves us deeply in the mechanics of coping so that some honest sense of the challenge and hardship can be imparted. The Martins lead lives of passionate intensity and few credible hopes, and sharing their anxieties and commitment offers us far more understanding than any exhortation to awareness. Jent holds back a long time before allowing her characters to argue the case for social action, and when they do, it is founded on genuine frustration and desperation, at a point when the audience can no longer bear not to hear the message.

To work, Falling requires the most committed emotional authenticity, which director Elina de Santos achieves with her uniformly splendid cast. Little and Windley refreshingly skirt the cliches that linger perilously close by their characters, assisted by the unhackneyed writing. The redoubtable Karen Landry as visiting grandmother Sue embodies the inescapably clueless viewpoint of the well-intentioned outsider, who, despite the limitations of her narrow religious perspective, never descends into an object of derision. Elkins has become an increasingly valuable local actor (A Bright New Boise), and here he invests his sympathetic dad with sincerely conflicted intentions with a distinctive vibe that is uniquely his own.

But above all, praise must be lavished on Khaja, an actor of apparently protean range, who incarnates fierce maternal love and the wearyingly impossible push-pull of omnipresent necessity, a Mother Courage for today’s Midwestern suburbs. Volcanic and vulnerable by hairpin turns, seemingly transparent yet filigreed precise, simultaneously in command yet profoundly out of control, Khaja suppresses rage and anxiety the better to expose their ravages. This extraordinary role has had the fortune to find this most splendid avatar.

Venue: Rogue Machine in Theatre/Theatre, mid-Wilshire (through Dec. 1)

Director: Elina de Santos

Cast: Anna Khaja, Matthew Elkins, Karen Landry, Matt Little, Tara Windley

Scenic Design: Stephanie Kerley Schwartz

Costume Design: Elizabeth A. Cox

Lighting Design: Leigh Allen

Sound Design: Christopher Moscatiello

Producers: John Perrin Flynn and Diane Alayne Baker

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