by Deanna Jent
KS Arts Centre, Singapore

In a society that valorises wealth, popularity and privilege, too many of our everyday heroes are ignored. Falling, a gripping drama by American playwright Deanna Jent, sheds light on just one such group — the caregivers of people with autism.

The Yeos are a typical family: Rebellious teenage daughter Lisa (Fiona Lim), nagging parents Bill and Tami (Adrian Pang and Tan Kheng Hua) and a Bible-thumping grandmother who has come to visit (Neo Swee Lin). The only difference is that living among them is Josh (Andrew Marko), Bill and Tami’s severely autistic 18-year-old son.

Josh’s condition is such that he requires constant attention. He gets agitated by loud noises like the sound of a blender or a dog barking, likes routine and nothing calms him more than pulling a string attached to a box, causing feathers to cascade over his head.

A simple exercise of getting Josh ready for school is a mission — his parents have to enact song and dance sequences and deal with his daily tantrums, some more violent than others.

Marko gives a standout performance that is all twisted hand gestures, shuffles and grunts, a tour de force of character acting that is testament to the detailed preparation that has been undertaken to understand why Josh acts the way he does.

Photo Credit: Crispian Chan, PANGDEMONIUM

It’s no surprise that Josh’s condition takes an enormous toll on the family. Tami resorts to alcohol to calm her nerves and is emotionally distant from her husband. Lisa just wants to live a normal teenage life without her “freak” of a brother. “You can hate him,” Tami tells her at one point. “Mothers don’t have that choice.”

Tan’s Tami is the beating heart of the show and her nuanced performance of a quietly resilient mother will have one biting back tears. Indeed, it’s nothing short of fiercely unconditional love that enables one to deal with a situation like this on a daily basis, being constantly bullied and berated. In one of the play’s most powerful moments, Tami dreams what her life would be like if Josh dies and is so consumed by guilt that she rushes to hug her bemused son, realising that there is no truer gift than him just standing there, being himself.

Photo Credit: Crispian Chan, PANGDEMONIUM

Much of what makes Falling so powerful is its authenticity — Jent is herself the mother of an autistic child — and her scenes pulsate with honesty. Director Tracie Pang calibrates the emotional temperature to perfection, keeping the action lived-in and avoiding sentimentality or theatrics. The play also translates effortlessly to a Singapore setting, reminding us that autism is very much a universal problem. The production is rounded out by Wong Chee Wai and Chris Chua’s stunningly recreated apartment set and James Tan’s beautiful lighting.

It is important to recognise PANGDEMONIUM’s outreach efforts to members of the autistic community and engaging post-show talks. Awareness is the first step to a society that will stop such individuals from falling through the cracks. Like Josh, they just need the comfort of feathers.

The Crystalwords score: 4/5

*This review was written for TODAY and published on 16 May 2016.


Popular Posts