In Heartland Theatre’s riveting production of Illinois Wesleyan University alumna Deanna Jent’s “Falling,” each moment matters. This is the story of a household dominated by Josh, a hulking 18-year-old man/toddler with autism. In Josh’s house, a moment is how long the peace lasts, how long a victory can be savored and how long it takes for everything to come undone. The sound of a blender can do it.
Josh’s (Daniel Esquivel) family includes Mom Tami (Karen Hazen), Dad Bill (Rhys Lovell), and teenage sister Lisa (Ashley Pruitt). They’ve developed an endless series of routines, rituals and code words to get Josh through the day. Josh is at the far end of the autistic spectrum; he mostly grunts or repeats two-word sentences. When he becomes sufficiently agitated he attacks, usually his mother. And just when this day was already on a razor’s edge, here comes a rare visit from Bible-toting-and-quoting Grammy Sue (Ann Bastian White).
Director Lori Adams is in her third round of directing this astonishing show that premiered in St. Louis and also played off-Broadway. Jent, who has a severely autistic son much like Josh, wrote this one straight from the heart. No wonder Adams demands -- and gets -- unblinking honesty from the actors.
John C. Stark’s gorgeous set feels homey at the same time it feels too small for Josh. Along with properties designer Jeannie Breitweiser, Stark created a living room that reads like an obstacle course, with everything falling down – puzzles pieces, marbles and feathers. How long can this family keep picking up?
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Esquivel’s Josh is so utterly believable that it’s hard not to squint with him at the marble or delight in the shower of feathers he can pull down from a box. Likewise, when he turns menacing, it’s harrowing for the audience, too.
Hazen, as Josh’s mom, is luminous. She’s wound so tight she’d shatter, if only she had the time. Her face reflects the strain but also the love she has for a son who barely acknowledges her. Lovell convincingly plays her husband who is at the breaking point, too, and wants more from his wife than she can give. Pruitt, as the sister, is effectively fed up and White’s Grammy Sue is heartbreakingly clueless.
This is thought-provoking theater. It’s hard to walk away. Luckily, there are talkbacks scheduled for nearly all performances.