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'Falling' Brings The Tough Reality Of Dealing With Autism To The Stage

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Plays about human disabilities are tough to pull off. David Mamet once suggested even that "illness [and] birth defects" are "not [a] fit subject of drama" because they don't "deal with the human capacity for choice," but only demand an audience's sympathy for the kind of misfortune that anyone would already sympathize with anyway.

Deanna Jent's "Falling," now receiving an impeccable West Coast premiere production directed by Elina de Santos at Rogue Machine, is about the intense, heartbreaking travails of dealing with a severely autistic family member. 18-year-old Josh Martin (Matt Little) can be playful, but he's also prone to violent outbursts and requires the near-constant attention of his stalwart, long-suffering parents Bill (Matthew Elkins) and Tami (Anna Khaja). Josh's younger sister Lisa (Tara Windley) wishes he would "go on a long vacation and never come back," and Bill's Bible-quoting mother Sue (Karen Landry), visiting for a few days, is appalled by her grandson's behaviors.

"Falling" is strongest early on in its depiction of the Martins' active resolution to live as happily and normally as possible, incorporating the daily challenges of loving an unpredictable Josh into a dignified and good-natured morning routine. Elkins and Khaja are both extremely likable as adults determined not to be in over their heads, even in scary moments when the towering manchild Josh loses control and attacks his mother. They've been through this before, and they know how they have to handle it.

As the play continues and we see the strains on the family gain the upper hand over the strength of the family, we just keep rooting for them, though, as Mamet warned, that's pretty much the only response the play triggers. When grandmother Sue tries convincing her son and daughter-in-law to pray for Josh's improved condition, Bill suggests, with some bitterness, that she pray instead for safe institutional housing options to become more widely available. To Lisa's exasperated insistence that she wants a better set of options in how to live her life at home, Tami can only respond with a weak defiance, "Don't we all!" An unexpected detour into the interior psyche of one of these family members toward the end of the play provides an affecting jolt, but isn't especially revelatory about the character's—or the family's—spiritual or emotional condition.

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All the actors here are right on the money in their portrayals of good people dealt a difficult hand. Khaja offers hints of the funny, engaging woman that Tami doesn't get much of a chance to be as she devotes herself to caring for and protecting her son. Rogue Machine veteran Elkins doesn't force Bill to pretend to be stronger than he is, but he's no pushover, either. Landry makes the most out of her rather thankless role as an overly religious old busybody reluctant to recognize her family's reality. And in the obviously very difficult part of Josh himself, Matt Little elicits compassion for his helplessness without stinting in the demonstration of the menace that Josh represents to those who who happen to be near him at the wrong moment.

Without a doubt, "Falling" provides a stark yet surprisingly entertaining look at both the pain and the bravery of families who live with severe autism in their homes every day, and certainly no one can leave the theater worse off for the exposure to this social reality. But the memory of this lesson may end up more lasting than that of the play itself.

Rogue Machine's production of "Falling" plays Friday and Saturday nights at 8 and Sunday afternoons at 3 through December 1 (no performances October 26 and November 29) at Theatre Theater. Audience talk-back events after the Sunday performances through November 10. Tickets $33 ($22 for students) on the Rogue Machine website, $30 (and $20) at the door, $19.50 on Goldstar and $19 on lastagetix.