Falling: A family reveals its true colors in Mustard Seed's stunning drama about autism

Falling follows a family down into despair.
Falling follows a family down into despair. John Lamb

Falling: A family reveals its true colors in Mustard Seed's stunning drama about autism

Through May 4 at Fontbonne University Fine Arts Theatre, 6800 Wydown Boulevard.
Tickets are $30 to $35.
Call 314-719-8060 or visit www.mustardseedtheatre.com.

"I know he's scary. And I know you hate him. And that's OK — you can hate him," Tami tells her aggrieved daughter, Lisa, in Mustard Seed Theatre's production of Falling, Deanna Jent's anguishing tale of the Martin family at the point of fracture. "But moms don't get that choice."

He, in this case, is Josh, Tami's severely autistic son who needs the family's constant supervision to achieve even a modicum of domestic peace. Not that Josh is entirely unmanageable. He loves his marbles and his video games. He revels in little songs and stories, and he delights in the cascade of feathers that rains down from a box attached to the wall.

But loud noises disturb him. He dislikes surprises, and he has the discomfiting habit of fondling himself in the living room. The Martin family has created an elaborate repertoire of codes and games to manage his behavior and ameliorate his discomfort. But systems fail, and at 18, Josh has grown into a hulking man-child whose violent outbursts have the family living in fear. His in-home assistant has quit, and the Martins are struggling with whether they can still keep him at home.

The woman holding it all together is Tami, played with reserve-tank energy by Michelle Hand. In Hand's incarnation, Tami moves with unbridled enthusiasm when Josh is around. She mollifies him with the promise of a game so Lisa can use the blender. She amplifies her emotions, trying to connect with Josh as she convinces him to go to school with the promise of a gift from his grandma, who's due for a visit, when he returns. But Tami's seemingly boundless energy evaporates the minute Josh leaves the room, as she sustains herself with glasses of Shiraz, dark humor and — after a terrifying incident when Josh attacks her, pulling her to her tiptoes by her hair — a pack of frozen organic blueberries applied to her head.

Josh's volatility and Tami's steadfast refusal to try to place Josh in a group home has come at a price. She's become distant from her husband, Bill (a terrific and weary Greg Johnston), shuddering when he tries to be close to her and distrusting his ability to manage Josh on his own. Meanwhile, her daughter, Lisa, played with a slouchy, eye-rolling moodiness by Katie Donnelly, feels neglected. She can't get a dog or even have friends over for fear it will upset Josh, and she thrills at the prospect of going to live with her Scripture-quoting grandmother (Carmen Russell), who is appalled by the state of the Martin clan when she comes to visit.

Written and directed by Jent, Falling gives a superbly nuanced portrait of a family in perpetual crisis, where patience wears thin and its members, try though they may to support one another, ultimately must fend for themselves. It is in many ways a touching work, both funny and courageous, as this closely observed family drama unfolds over a weekend on John Stark's detailed set of middle-class desperation.

That said, the play does have moments when its seams begin to show. It's not entirely clear why everything comes to a head this weekend. They've known the score for a long time now. They've lost in-home care before. While Josh does become violent, he's been violent in the past (indeed, much more so to hear Lisa tell it, once breaking one of Tami's fingers). Have they just finally had enough? Why now? The play also has a lot of back-story to cover, lending to some clunky exchanges, as when Tami and Bill discuss placing Josh in a home. "But we could get him on a waiting list," Bill implores her. "There's waiting lists for the waiting lists," Tami fires back. You'd think at this late date they would have thoroughly discussed such basic options.

But these are quibbles, and Falling succeeds in large measure as a gripping, intimate and heart-wrenching study of a family in turmoil. The writing is often subtle and insightful, brought throbbing to life by Hand and the rest of this remarkable cast. The real scene-stealer, though, is Daniel Lanier, who, in the role of Josh, is transfixing as he moves heedlessly about the stage, setting the rest of the characters on edge with his potent cocktail of childlike incomprehension and bouts of unpredictable of fury. It is a fascinating and frightening performance, which suspends his family (and the audience), as Jent would have it, in a state of continuous free fall.

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