Autism and American Culture

IT and Studio Connections tackle big topics in 'Miracles' and 'America Hurrah'

In Invisible Theatre's latest production, a young woman with physical limitations and antisocial behavior has become a strain on her family, but a gifted teacher is helping her to communicate through her hands.

No, it's not The Miracle Worker. It's Miracles, a 1997 play by Missouri writer Frank Higgins. Higgins clearly draws inspiration from the classic stage work about Helen Keller, while adding new layers of complexity.

Instead of blindness and deafness, 17-year-old Eve Hudson (Rachel Lacy) has autism, but she's as cut off from the world as young Keller was. Unable to speak and living in a private care institution in the Berkshire Mountains, Eve's "water pump" moment of discovery has already happened before the play begins.

Teacher Kate Kingsley (Betsy Kruse Craig) has been working with Eve through Facilitated Communication, a controversial technique in which autistic individuals are possibly able to express themselves—or not. The autistic person types on a keyboard as a teacher supports her arm. What has emerged from Eve's typing is a ream of poetry, prompting sudden fame and a publishing contract.

This revelation throws Eve's father, Tom (James Blair), into turmoil. Is Eve's writing a miracle? A fraud? At one moment he is a true believer, and the next he is torn by conflicting evidence.

Director Susan Claassen keeps the play moving at an energetic clip. She has skillfully led her actors through emotional hairpin turns, from ecstasy to agony and back.

Blair and Craig offer passionate performances that aren't afraid to cut to their characters' inner pain. Blair is equally convincing when he's desperate to claim a real relationship with his daughter and when he rails against false hopes. Craig gradually exposes Kate's hunger for validation as a teacher. Each is discomfortingly eager to find fulfillment in Eve's new ability.

What is missing, though, is introspection. Tom and Kate do everything passionately, whether it's arguing, expressing doubt or making small talk. The characters' high energy makes for an exciting show, but leaves little room for them to actually consider the questions they face.

The real miracle of this production is Lacy's remarkable performance as Eve. I can only assume that Lacy has spent considerable time with autistic children, because the level of detail in her physicality is astonishing.

With her fingers woven into precise curls, she performs countless tiny rituals, seeming to live on a plane that only occasionally intersects with our own. The colorful set, a classroom designed by Claassen and Blair, becomes even more real because Lacy makes us understand that it is a concrete, familiar world to Eve.

As a play, Miracles is not wholly satisfying—the story becomes repetitious, and ends without resolving its major conflicts. But as a production, Invisible Theatre's show is energetic, moving and at times transcendent.

The da Vinci Players at Studio Connections, debuting their new stage at St. Francis in the Foothills, take a trip on the wild side in America Hurrah.

A Belgian immigrant to the U.S., playwright Jean-Claude van Itallie examines American culture with an outsider's critical eye in this 1966 play. During the '60s, he was a seminal writer in New York City's avant-garde theater scene.

Avant-garde theater lies outside the mainstream for good reason: It challenges audience expectations and demands that we think in new ways. Much like modern visual art, it's likely to make you ask, "What is this supposed to mean?" The answer you come up with will be the correct one for you.

I'm sharing this background information because it's impossible for a summary of America Hurrah to convey the experience of watching it. Originally a trilogy in three acts, the play is presented here as a two-parter. The cast agreed not to perform the third section ("Motel") because the subject material touched too closely to the shooting here in Tucson.

The first act, "Interview," is a series of vignettes in which ordinary people, in bizarre circumstances, are overlooked or humiliated by those in power. As he did in the troupe's Man of La Mancha, director Robert Encila skillfully creates detailed crowd scenes. The set is nothing more than movable wooden boxes, but the changing locations are conveyed perfectly through the silent performances of background characters.

"TV" is the less successful second act. On one side of the stage are three TV studio employees in a realistic scene—they tease each other, fetch coffee, bicker. Across the stage, an ensemble of masked actors creates a counterpart scene, acting out the station's vapid news updates, sitcoms and commercials. As in life, the television noise being broadcast makes it increasingly difficult to follow the meaningful conversation.

This layering of scenes makes for difficult logistical challenges. On the night I attended, the second act was frequently punctuated by awkward pauses, apparently caused by misalignment between the two sides.

The versatile cast brings a wide range of experience and maturity to their performances, and each actor has at least one moment to shine.

Jerome Wozniak, the oldest cast member, brings a compelling gravity as a beaten-down house painter. Travis Walton, though too young to be a convincing bank president, shows talent in an existential breakdown.

Lissa Staples' commanding energy serves her well as a faceless job interviewer, while Charlie Gebow's softer stage presence provides a satisfying contrast to his roles as superhero and sinister Zumba instructor. Ellie Vought and Betty Sproul both offer emotionally bare performances, one as a cleaning woman and the other as a woman desperate to find 14th Street.

Brian Scott Hale, Victor Bowleg and Teresa Vasquez play the (almost) realistic scene in Act Two. In spite of the awkward timing, they're each able to create detailed, naturalistic portraits of people with specific desires, habits and histories.

America Hurrah is far from perfect. The script intentionally seeks to keep the audience at a distance, a problem only compounded by the production's rough edges. At its core, though, are some fine performances, both playful and emotional.

And, as with much modern art, if you watch patiently, you may be surprised by the meanings you discover hidden in the seemingly random patterns.