He could read almost before he could speak. The infant who had not yet seen the flicker of a second candle on his birthday cake could chirp “Target,” “Kmart,” and “Save big money at Menards” when leafing through the Sunday supplements.
But the letter ‘d’ gave him nightmares, and, despite his fluency with the printed word, his alphabet blocks could only form a nonsensical ‘F-J-B-Q-E-T.’
The boy known simply as ‘Child’ in Stacey Dinner-Levin’s Autistic License is the now 21-year-old Geordy, the autistic son of the Minneapolis playwright whose play continues through March 27 in a SNAP! Productions run at the Shelterbelt Theatre.
Like Churchill’s famous description of Russia, the world of autism is a “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”
A fitting choice for the company whose mission is to “promote understanding and acceptance of all members of the community through artistic expression,” Autistic License is a tender and surprisingly funny look at the condition found in almost one percent of the population.
Michal Simpson is magnetic as the boy who channels Fred Astaire, William Shatner, Bob Barker and a familiar feline in a trademark hat through adventures that are equal parts heartwarming and heartbreaking. As is the case with every production of the play, an adult plays the child.
David Mainelli, coming off playing a smarmy, self-absorbed cad in the company’s recent Loose Knit, is strong as the boy’s father who sometimes struggles with the sacrifices of parenting a special needs child.
Best of all is Echelle Childers (pictured above with Michal Simpson) as Mom, especially when addressing the audience in gut-wrenchingly honest—and not always flattering— autobiographical soliloquies. Some of the night’s most comic moments come through unintentionally hilarious banter with 911 operators when her son has wandered off in the guise of the Invisible Man or Willy Wonka.
Autism, Dinner-Levin tells us through her character, can be akin to “a death with no funeral,” but it can also be a path to a deeper understanding of our own humanity and what it means to love unconditionally.
Autistic License triumphs on many levels, but is not without its faults.
One needn’t limn each and every petal of a rose in order to suggest its beauty. The playwright must here flirt with the clinical without succumbing to the cloying, and the work must find its power without yielding to the pedantic.
The overall affect is strong, but sometimes teeters precariously close to the precipice. With a run time of under just two hours, this work is shorter than many nights at the theater, but I can’t escape the feeling that a 90-minute version would make a somehow greater, “less-is-more” impact.
“What a perfect ending,” thought I as the music swelled during what I took then (and still believe now) to be the play’s most climactic moment. But I had erred. There were several scenes still to follow.
Too many ‘petals’ on this one? Perhaps, but nothing alters the fact that a rose is a rose is a rose.
Director M. Michele Phillips’ Autistic License, succeeds not only as an unusually touching “cause” piece, but also as a larger work, one with broader themes that speak to how happiness is a choice regardless of our circumstances, a gift that is there for the taking.