Theatre review: 'Falling' offers a warm look at family struggles

For the News-DemocratApril 14, 2014 

Tap-dancing in a mine field is how playwright Deanna Jent describes caring for her autistic son.

The St. Louis mother of three and theater professor turned her experience into the heart-tugging play "Falling." It shines a compelling spotlight on families whose life revolves around the extreme needs of one person.

Back by popular demand after its much-heralded 2011 local premiere, this five-person drama remains a potent work. In 70 minutes, "Falling" faces hard truths by realistically portraying daily demands and family conflicts, nonetheless spiked with warm humor, all the while keeping hope afloat.

Four of the five cast members return from the show's first run, and they are comfortable and convincing in their well-rounded roles.

As the fierce mama Tami Martin, Michelle Hand is a dynamic force of nature. An energetic actress, she vigorously guides us through the quick-silver emotions and sensory overload of her responsibilities caring for her 18-year-old autistic son at home.

Greg Johnston is strong as her exasperated, compassionate husband Bill. Carmen Russell is impressive as his visiting mother Grammy Sue, a devout Christian who doesn't fully comprehend the difficult situation.

Katie Donnelly sensibly plays daughter Lisa, a typical teenager, and shows a range of genuine emotions, from resentment about having a special-needs brother, to concern for her family and frustration about her future.

Newcomer Daniel Lanier excels as Josh, the son afflicted with this brain function development disorder. Through research and Jent's direction, Lanier realistically represents the characterizations -- impaired social interaction, problems with verbal and nonverbal communication, and severely limited activities and interests.

The ensemble works smoothly together, and their portrayal of this family is downright organic. They deeply connect to anyone in the audience who is involved in autistic spectrum disorders or who knows what it's like to love someone hard to love.

The consequences of their decision to care for Josh at home, so that he can be surrounded by people who love him, reverberate throughout a typical day. Ultimately, the Martin family's love for each other comes across as they strive for understanding.

After its fall 2011 triumph and Kevin Kline Award for Best New Play, "Falling" opened off-Broadway in the fall 2012, was produced in Los Angeles in fall 2013, and throughout the United States in 2014. It is being translated into Portuguese for a production in Brazil next year.

Perceptive but not preachy, this important play carries responsibility -- for people to be moved to action, to help and to accept.

It's evident that "Falling" is a passionate project for Jent, the founder of Mustard Seed Theatre, as well as all the designers, cast and crew. You'll want to stay afterward for a "talk-back" with Jent and cast.


When: Through May 4.

Where: Mustard Seed Theatre, Fontbonne University, Clayton, Mo.



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