It’s easy to tell a story about autism–really, about any form of disability or difference–where the disability is the story, with each triumph and setback a little plot twist. It’s much harder to tell a story (in this case a series of stories) about day-to-day life, where autism infuses every decision and interaction and choice but has no progress narrative, no moral valence, and no metaphorical resonance–it’s simply the texture of these characters’ existences. Uncommon Sense was developed by the husband-wife playwriting team of Anushka Paris-Carter and Andy Paris from their own experiences with autism in their family and from years of meeting and interviewing people with autism. The piece (directed, beautifully, by Paris), presents specific moments in the lives of four people on the autism spectrum and their loved ones, giving a neurotypical audience the chance to feel not so much the struggles and successes of the characters (though both abound) as their interior lives and ordinary experiences. With precision, compassion, and humor, Paris-Carter and Paris have created a play that, while it may sometimes skew a little sentimental and exposition-heavy, lets the viewers experience the (related but far from identical) worlds and consciousnesses of this panorama of characters on the autistic spectrum from a perspective that perhaps even their parents, their siblings, their would-be lovers, and their caregivers can’t access.
Two of the central characters are relatively high-functioning, able to live independently, while two are nonverbal and much more reliant on their caregivers. Dan (Scott Barrow) is a college graduate with Asperger’s Syndrome; he’s got an enormous amount of self-knowledge about his own condition but nonetheless keeps losing jobs (and, one surmises, friendships) because he can’t quite modify his behavior enough to fit in. And he hides big swaths of his struggles, we find out late in the play, until he meets a woman he wants to be with, but doesn’t quite know how (he can’t get over, for example, the fact that she snores in F minor). Jess (Jessica Almasy) has made it to college, by the skin of her teeth, and while she’s thrilled to be away from her parents and on her own, language and social communication fail her in emotional situations, which handicaps a growing friendship. The adolescent, nonverbal Moose (Andrew Duff), has had his mother, Emily (Michi Barall) as a full-time caregiver for his entire life, but his increasing physical strength and her increasing exhaustion start to fray their family. And the young Lali (Jill Frutkin), non-communicative and withdrawn, frustrates her mother’s every attempt to break through to her, until a therapist brings her a tool that reveals unseen abilities and a vein of poetry.
The piece deftly illustrates the ways that these characters have commonalities of perception despite the very real differences in their lives: Each fixates obsessively on certain topics and objects, which are reliable and comforting. For Jess, it’s online gaming and anime characters; for Dan, cats and horses; for Moose; an eggbeater and jellyfish; for Lali, uncooked rice. Dan’s girlfriend, Sarah (Jill Frutkin), shares this quality; toxicology is her subject of interest. Each has very real and concrete desires, whether they can express them or not; one of the most moving moments is when Lali, given a tool that allows her to write, is finally able to tell her mother why she behaves some of the ways she does. And the inability of each to anticipate or respond to the emotions of others complicates and damages relationships: Jess’s with her tutee/friend Alex (Brian Hastert), Dan’s with Sarah, Lali’s with everyone, and, most heartbreakingly, Moose’s with his mother, who batters herself against Moose’s impenetrability.
It’s also an exceptional piece of theatrical craft, with strong performances across the board, and every element of design working in harmony with Paris’s staging: John Coyne’s set of constantly shifting panels and platforms and swings allows constant and layered motion and then adds the occasional gorgeous visual surprise. David Bengali’s stunning projections use imagery and scale and movement to convey the perceptions of the autistic characters, like the reflections off Moose’s eggbeater or the math that runs through Dan’s head. Stephanie Robinson’s sound and music complement Bengali’s work with a soundscape that also illustrates the character’s perceptions. Among the actors, Duff (who is on the autistic spectrum and worked with Paris and Paris-Carter in developing the play) and Frutkin do wonderful, subtle work building shades of emotion into characters who could easily remain utterly opaque. The actors playing opposite them are often burdened with the worst of the exposition-dumps, but Barall and Purva Bedi (who plays both Lali’s mother and Dan’s sister) pour their hearts out as parents who’ve sacrificed their own lives to give their children every opportunity to thrive.
Uncommon Sense isn’t the first play to use the technical tools of theater to give a neurotypical audience the chance to perceive the world as a person on the autistic spectrum does (a technique The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, for example, used to great effect). But in paying attention to the differences among the characters with autism and their connections with others, rather than their isolation and difference from neurotypical people, Uncommon Sense brings welcome complexity to the dialogue, and does so with elegant theatricality.
Uncommon Sense runs to November 26. More production info can be found here.