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Tuesday, 15 April 2014 22:06

'Falling' Soars

Written by Steve Callahan
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'Falling' Soars

It's been two-and-a-half years since Deanna Jent's remarkable play, "Falling", premiered at the Mustard Seed Theatre. This has been a busy time for Ms. Jent and her play. An off-Broadway production in 2012 was met with glowing reviews (and a nomination for a Drama Desk Award for "Outstanding Play"). "Falling" was produced in Los Angeles in 2013 and is appearing all over the country this year. Next year Brazil!

And you can count your lucky stars that right now it is again playing in St. Louis. This is the most powerful, moving new play I've seen in years. 

Falling shows us a family as it struggles to deal with the severe autism of their eighteen-year old son Josh.   Jent writes from her own family's experience.  I admit that I went to see the premiere production with some trepidation.  Frankly I tend to avoid plays about diseases;  they often tend to be opportunistic, sometimes maudlin or self-pitying, sometimes pushing some agenda.    I tend to avoid plays about dysfunctional families;  they're way too easy to write and they say little about the general human condition.

But in Falling Deanna Jent gives us a play which has none of those failings.  I think I've never seen a play that so toweringly rose above my expectations.  And the current revival is every bit as fine as that premiere. "Falling" is not a play about a disease;  it's a compelling, gripping evening of real, intense drama—wonderfully leavened with moments of absolutely natural comedy.  These are very real people we're watching as they struggle to get through another day in what is simply an impossible situation. Young Josh must be coddled and cajoled, even tricked into controlling himself. Sudden noises—say, the bark of a dog—can send him into a dangerous aggressive frenzy. Code words and gimmicks and games can help, but there is never a moment of rest. As Deanna Jent says, this sort of "extreme parenting" is like "tap-dancing in a mine-field."

Jent's dialogue is so natural, the family dynamics so deeply valid. The stresses are so great as to threaten the bonds that hold this family together.

The ensemble is superb.  Three of the four are from the original production: Michelle Hand (who has given us many fine performances) gives, I think, the best one of her career as the mother, who struggles with the massive responsibilities with which her son burdens her—deftly juggling love and fear.  Greg Johnston, too, shows his personal very best as the father.  Katie Donnelly as the daughter beautifully captures the resentment this girl has at the total domination her brother's condition has over the whole family.  And Carmen Russell does a lovely job as the grandmother who wants to help, but whose nagging religiosity makes her simply an additional irritant.

Daniel Lanier has taken on the supremely challenging role of Josh, and he triumphs. The original Josh was a very large, heavy young man; despite his gentleness of spirit his sheer size gave Josh an innate menace. Lanier is smaller, but perfectly capable of physical threat—and he adds a sweetness; at times there's a glimpse of—of what?—I think "adorability" is the right word. His authentic human need and frustration—and indeed his fragility—shine through his bizarre, compulsive behavior.

There is a lovely shading of the darker and lighter emotions throughout. Moments of embarrassment, anger, frustration—even fear and panic—are touched with humor and irony as the parents gather their wits and their breaths after some incident. Sometimes such small flashes of humor are defensive; sometimes they’re almost like a quick embrace, reaffirming their relationship.

There’s also a shading of gently surrealistic touches against the unforgiving harsh reality of this family’s life. These are signs of a true sense of theatre. (And I suspect that the life of any family dealing with autism is touched ‘round the edges with a hint of surrealism.)

Time and again we are impressed with the human ability to endure. Waiting for Godot is another play about bearing the unbearable. In it this exchange states the situation succinctly:

Estragon: I can't go on like this.
Vladimir: That's what you think.

"Falling" presents just this dilemma. Its final moment of gentle, surreal theatricality is truly inspired. We see this supremely stressed woman releasing herself into—into what? Perhaps into the grace of God. Perhaps simply into that sublimely limitless human capacity for resilience.

When I first saw it I prophesied that this play would go far.   It is wonderful to see it finding such nationwide, worldwide success.   It's very, very good!  And it's a most courageous exploration by a woman who knows.

You may learn more about this company at

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