I caught this play last Tuesday and it was an educational and emotional experience. All the actors were wonderful in their roles and brought out their various complexities.
The play revolves around a family of four and offers us a glimpse into their everyday lives. Each family has their own unique ecosystem of habits but for the Yeos, the situation is more nuanced than that. Their ordinary lives are made extraordinary by their 18 year old child, Josh, who has severe autism. The play explores the fallout when the ecosystem is disrupted by the arrival of Nana, the grandmother.
Tami, the mother, is clearly one of the 2 central figures in the play. She is Josh’s primary caregiver. This is shown at the beginning when we see her successfully coaxing Josh into getting ready for school and thus saving her husband, Bill. Her love and patience for Josh never wavers, even during and after his violent outbursts. Even though her days are long and occasionally difficult, she manages to steal tiny moments of freedom and happiness as she jams to her favourite songs. But she is a human after all and we see her resorting to alcohol as a form of escapism and cracks in the marriage forms as she distances herself from Bill. She admits her helplessness in trying to take care of the entire family while keeping all of them together as a family. It is impossible to fault her due to her love for Josh, resilience and determination that has kept her going when most of us would have chosen easier ways out.
Josh is an enigma even though he is also a central character. We know his habits, the games he plays, the songs he sings and the things he dislikes. But we are never truly able to step into his world. With his hypersensitivity, he experiences the world differently from us. He has an acute sense of hearing and some sounds appeal to him more than the others. He is also not a big fan of Bill’s voice. We know a lot about him but understand very little about him.
Bill the father, tries his best to do his part. He really is a typical dad who is the family’s breadwinner and occasionally takes the easy way out of disagreements or arguments by going out or ironically, hiding in the kitchen. Like Tami, he worries about the future now that Josh is of legal age. He attempts to form a stronger bond with Josh and to mend the gaps that have appeared in his marriage. I would say he has done slightly better at the latter even though what he needs (physical intimacy) is not what Tami needs. However, he does provide comical relief that alleviates the tension and these occasional doses of laughter help the family to get through the day.
Lisa is the 16 year-old sister with a rebellious attitude and a resentment for her brother. I personally think that one of the best parts of the play is that it does not fault or blame Lisa for feeling the way she does or any of the other characters in fact. It is not difficult to see why she thinks a future without Josh or at least away from him, would make life better for everyone. In a dream sequence, she lists the things that they can finally do together as a family sans Josh. Perhaps she had an prior incident with Josh that caused her to draw away from him or maybe school took her time away from Josh. The family’s situation has also been mentally and emotionally-wearing her down. She worries that she may one day come home to find Tami dead. But when she presents the option of her leaving for Australia with Nana, it is evident that she still loves her family and would much prefer to stay.
Nana, the Bible-wielding grandmother arrives with her own set of expectations just like us, the audience. She is a conduit for the audience. Nana arrives at the house and assures the couple that she understands and knows what to expect. So do we. Only to have our previously-held expectations and understandings to be shattered. We learn about autism together with Nana as the play proceeds and begin to reflect how each of us can help. Nana eventually makes the decision to move back.
Besides educating us about autism, Falling presents us with the challenging questions and opens room for discussion for a topic that we find difficult to talk about. The post-show dialogue is helpful and insightful. Awareness and education are definitely the first 2 steps we have to take before figuring out suitable solutions for autistic individuals and their families.