Review by Sharlene Hartman
ELLENVILLE, NY (September 17, 2014) – You have simply got to see this play, if you love theatre, story telling and watching truth on a stage. I was so blown away by Shadowland’s current production of “Falling” that I can’t possibly conjure up enough adjectives to describe everything that I so deeply felt and experienced: haunting, riveting, painstakingly real. These are but a few that initially come to mind.
Good theatre should always be entertaining, but when it makes you truly feel something, experience the emotions of what is happening on the stage, makes your heart race and tears flow, it brings the theatrical experience to a heightened level. And this apex was achieved on Friday evening, September 12, 2014, at the Shadowland’s opening of “Falling.” I can’t remember the last time I was so filled with genuine feelings while watching actors on a stage. Because in my reality, they ceased to be actors, I was watching a real family.
“Falling” is a masterful play by Deanna Jent, and in the playwright’s own words, it’s about, “trying to love somebody who’s not easy to love.” “Falling” is about a family in crisis and is based on the playwright’s own life as a mother of a severely autistic son. Deanna had always been a “journaler,” but during one, particularly difficult, summer she therapeutically detailed the family’s experiences; and these became the seeds of what developed into this wonderful play.
I came to this production only knowing it was about a family, coping with a young adult son with autism. And since Shadowland used the words “dark humor” to describe it on their website, I felt there would be some light moments. But, even though I repeated the words “dark humor” to my husband numerous times, he tagged along thinking that this was going to be a very depressing evening of theatre since he works with autistic young adults. However, he was mistaken, theatrical magic was at work. Since that evening he has mentioned numerous times a day, what a fabulous play and experience it was; “One of the best plays I’ve ever seen, not maudlin or soapy, phenomenal … it just tells it like it is.” And he has thanked me more than once, for bringing him with me.
The play opens in a very magical way; the music, the lighting, the movements of Josh, as he enters. You are seduced into being a voyeur by the gentle, whimsical, almost slow motion introduction. And then the virtual window opens up to this powerful play and BAM, you are awestruck as you watch this Middle American family cope with their 6’ 4”, 280 pound, 18-year- old son and brother who shows us autism at its worst.
Josh is magnificently, realistically and heartbreakingly played by Dan Mian; with his voice, his giggles, his nuanced body language…and occasional body language that isn’t so nuanced. Josh is a big fellow, at times the gentle giant and other times not so gentle. I was reminded more than once of John Steinbeck’s character Lennie, in “Of Mice and Men.”
Josh can be very sweet but anything can set him off. As Longfellow said, “…when she was good she was very very good but when she was bad she was horrid.” Josh is especially sensitive to noises. He doesn’t like the sound of the kitchen blender, the oven timer, the dog barking, anything really that interrupts his routine. And on this particular day his dad is home, preparing for a visit from his mother Grammy Sue. He doesn’t have his mom to himself, like he’s used to and he is refusing to go to school.
The entire family is affected by Josh’s unpredictable behavior, but the person that is truly in the trenches with him, is his mom. Tami, is played with a double dose of courage, honestly, realism and sardonic humor by Kathy McCafferty. I’d seen Kathy last year in Shadowland’s production of “Boeing Boeing,” the bedroom farce romp. She played the French maid, who juggles the numerous “fiancés” and keeps the playboy pilot’s ruse from falling apart before the end of the play. And in “Falling” she’s doing the same thing, with much higher stakes. Kathy as Josh’s mom, not only keeps the play going she keeps the family and herself going, during some pretty uncomfortable situations.
The total cast is outstanding. And perhaps one of the reasons I had so much feeling for them was because they didn’t feel sorry for themselves. I looked at them and thought; “that poor family,” yet they picked themselves up and persevered, often with humor. Bill the father, is the family member getting the least amount of attention, love and support; and John Summerford plays him with such empathy and optimism. And my heart went out to Liza, the younger teenage sister, played with such truth, frustration, adolescent angst and reality by Sara Glancy. Her home life revolves around Josh, she can’t even have friends over. At the top of the play she talks to her dad about the coming visit of Grammy Sue and remarks, “Does she know to bring her helmet and shield?”
Then Grammy Sue arrives and thinks she knows what she’s in for, but she hasn’t visited in 3 years. When she sees Josh for the first time she just stares with disbelief. Then Bill says, “he’s grown a lot the last couple of years, hopefully he’s stopped.” Grammy Sue, is played by Sally Minich with prim and proper honesty and some very funny facial reactions to certain things she witnesses. You just had to giggle, when she’s told that Josh’s favorite erotica, while touching himself, are diaper ads. But she always composes herself and tries to get everyone to pray the autism problem away.
I’d like to extend gigantic kudos and a grand bravo to Brendan Burke, for his absolutely fabulous direction of a very difficult play. Also, the set designed by Colin McGurk was ultra real, the use of unique lighting, designed by Lauren Miller and the grand use of music and sounds designed by Jeff Knapp all contributed greatly to the telling of this wonderfully unique story.
I was so captivated by this production of “Falling” and it swiftly moves along, so when the lights came down I thought it was another theatrical lighting change. I’d have sworn that I’d only been watching for 45 min at the most. But I’d been mesmerized for 75 minutes.
I was so impressed by this play that I couldn’t understand why it didn’t have a longer Off Broadway run and why ultimately it didn’t move to Broadway. A little investigation shows that this play opened the Fall of 2012 at the Minetta Lane Theater in New York City. Previews started September 27 and it opened on October 15th. Then Hurricane Sandy took hold of NYC two weeks later when the subways were shut down Saturday evening October 28. I think Falling took quite a hit from Super Storm Sandy. The theater is located Downtown and there were areas that went without electricity and water for weeks. I know that some of those theaters offered $20.00 orchestra seat tickets to try and get people to the area. I think this is such an important piece of theatre and under different circumstances would have run much longer or moved to a Broadway House. Ticket sales took a huge blow…and a play that should have soared much higher had its wings clipped by the storm.
“Falling” runs through September 28. Box Office: 845-647-5511, Shadowland Theatre 157 Canal Street, Ellenville, New York 12428 www.shadowlandtheatre.org
PLEASE see this play I think you’ll be so grateful you did; it’s an important one.