Seated on red cushioned stools around beige tables laid out for a celebration, the audience is introduced to a softened world in Normal. This set design is just one of the many ways that Caitriona Daly’s excellent and beguiling new play brings to light the needs of someone living with autism. Gary, an autistic man in his twenties and the work’s main character, never appears onstage – a decision that could cast doubt on the playwright’s license to explore the condition. Yet the care detectable in the portrayal and staging demonstrate the amount of precaution that has gone into creating Normal.
Director Maisie Lee’s absorbing production for WeGetHighOnThis Collective begins in silence. Two women clean up the leftover refuse of a party. Helen (Caoimhe O’Malley) awkwardly attempts conversation with Phil (Karen Ardiff), for whom nothing is satisfactory; the pastries were a wasteful expense and the bargain balloons pop too easily. It gradually becomes clear that the characters are Gary’s girlfriend and mother, fraught with stress after his birthday party has come to an abrupt halt.
At the heart of the tension between Helen and Phil is a difference of opinion over Gary’s care. Helen, more integrationist in her beliefs, insists that Gary should take his place in the world, despite recent efforts to do so ending in distress. Phil, however, argues that isolated and controlled environments are better for him. Both, in their own ways, have a genuine concern for the quality of Gary’s life. Both sides of arguments are convincing, but when it comes to Gary’s capacity to love, the urge to side with O’Malley’s Helen is strong. Agonising over their relationship, she recalls their first meeting and the extended hand of a kind stranger.
Daly, however, digs deeper than simply identifying these contrasting opinions by also exposing the issue of external perception. The play hints at the judgements made about a mother’s parenting style or a girlfriend’s decision to date an autistic man. It’s harder for Ardiff’s vivid Phil to let go of her son than for most mothers. There’s no arguing with her when she describes autism as frustrating, both for those living with the condition and those caring for them.
But whilst the day-to-day realties are difficult, Daly’s drama ultimately suggests that the perceived idea of normalcy plays a considerable role in informing how we understand autism and what we think is best for people living with it. In the case of Gary, it’s created a rift between the two people closest to him. It’s notable that by the end of the play no agreement has been reached – yet each in their own way carries on out of love.
Normal is on as part of the Dublin Fringe 2017. Click here for more details.