by Deanna Jent
Directed by Deanna Jent
Mustard Seed Theatre
April 12th, 2014
Falling has become quite the success story in terms of St. Louis theatre on a national stage. Since Mustard Seed’s first production in 2011, the play has enjoyed productions in New York (Off-Broadway) and Los Angeles with critical acclaim. Now, the production has come full circle, being re-staged at Mustard Seed with most of its original cast. Although I didn’t see the show the first time around, I can see now why this show has enjoyed so much success. It’s a powerful, riveting and extremely well-written drama that tells the story of one family’s very specific struggles, but also manages to speak to universal human themes in the process. This may be Mustard Seed’s second time producing this show, but everything from the cast to the staging to the overall effect can only be described as first-rate.
Inspired by playwright/director Deanna Jent’s personal experience as the mother of an adult child with autism, this play tells the story of the fictional Martin family by first introducing us to 18-year-old Josh (Daniel Lanier) as he wakes up and goes about his usual morning routine of wandering through the living room setting things in order (such as arranging stacks of videotapes) and enjoying one of his favorite rituals involving tipping over a box of feathers that fall onto his head as he joyfully dances underneath. We then meet the rest of his family–mom Tami (Michelle Hand), dad Bill (Greg Johnston) , and teenage sister Lisa (Katie Donnelly), as the family prepares breakfast and gets Josh ready to go to school. Although the challenges with Josh’s situation are apparent early on (it’s a struggle to prepare him for school), it’s when Bill’s mom Sue (Carmel Russell) arrives later for a visit from out of town that the situation becomes even more tense eventually bringing out a wide range of emotions and issues as this family deals with the ever-increasing conundrums concerning the family’s relationships and the increasingly uncontrollable (and occasionally aggressive) Josh’s future. Tami especially is confronted with the dilemma of how best to help Josh while trying to maintain some level of harmony within the rest of her family as a series of increasingly confrontational and explosive events forces her to come to terms with her own hopes and fears concerning Josh, her family and herself.
One of things I find particularly impressive about this production is that it presents such a fully-realized world, through the combination of the carefully crafted script, a fully committed cast and meticulously appointed set (designed by John Stark) and strikingly atmospheric lighting effects (designed by Michael Sullivan). This show becomes something of a window into this family’s life, and the proceedings are more powerful in that they are all so achingly real, from Tami’s struggles to stay optimistic, keep order in her family and love her son despite his increasingly uncontrollable and occasionally dangerous behavior, to Bill’s frustration in maintaining his bond with his wife, to Lisa’s anger and resentment of her brother and his necessary hold on his parents’ attention, to the devoutly Christian Sue’s struggle to reconcile the concepts of her faith with her desire to be a help to her family. All of these characters and their situations are fully realized without being cookie-cutter characters, and the play presents the issues and challenges of dealing with a family member with special needs in a way that is simultaneously specific and universal. Not everyone watching this play will have the same or similar experience to the Martin family, but there’s something about the human condition and the continual struggle to find hope in the midst of seemingly insurmountable obstacles that all humans will be able to relate to in one way or another. It deals with issues of family love, parents’ sense of inadequacy, sibling resentment, faith and doubt, and other common human situations, confronting a range of possible solutions to these problems but with no easy answers, as is often the case in life.
The cast here is top-notch, bringing this family to life with realism and power. As Josh, the play’s focal point and the catalyst for its action, Lanier is astounding. He’s at once endearing and physically imposing, bringing energy and warmth as well as a capacity for both gentleness and violence, and his interactions with his family are full of both highly-charged emotion and great sympathy. Hand, as Tami, demonstrates a tremendous emotional range as the initially optimistic and upbeat Tami, who is trying to make the most of difficult situation but is finding that increasingly difficult. Her character’s ever-increasing weariness, as well as her great love for all of her family, is readily apparent in Hand’s remarkable performance. While Hand and Lanier portray the play’s central relationship, the rest of the cast is equally excellent in support, with Johnston strong as the loving but increasingly exasperated Bill, Donnelly in an extremely true-to-life portrayal of the teenage girl who just wants her life to be more “normal” and struggles with her own resentment, and Russell in a refreshingly sincere, non-caricatured performance as the well-meaning but somewhat out of touch grandmother. Across the board, this cast provides a very rich and believable portrayal of a family I could easily imagine meeting in real life.
One frustrating aspect of being relatively new to reviewing plays in such a vibrant theatre scene is that there will always be particularly acclaimed productions I wish I had gotten the chance to see, and short of time travel there’s no way to be able see those shows. With this encore production of Falling, It feels like I’m actually getting to realize one of those missed chances, and that’s a real blessing with a production as profoundly moving as this one. For anyone who missed this last time, I would strongly suggest you catch it this time. It’s more than worth the effort.