That’s my one word review. If you want a more detailed critical analysis of the play’s many virtues (the few shortcomings can be filed in the nit-picky drawer), check out Ben Brantley’s New York Times review. I agree with his assessment almost point for point, though I was offended by some of his phrasing, like his description of Christopher, the play’s teenage autistic protagonist as: “a parent’s nightmare.”
That aside, Brantley does a wonderful job describing the exceptional direction, lighting, set design, sound design, choreography, and tour de force acting of Alex Sharp in the role of Christopher. Plus, there’s a great slide show! And a video!
What can I add to the conversation? Well, I’m the father of a soon-to-be-teenage autistic girl, an avid theatergoer, extremely opinionated, harshly critical and always correct. Most pertinently, I’m a person.
One of the things that bugs me about many fictional works with autistic characters is the implied or stated assertion that a specific autistic character represents all autistic people. When Christopher says he thinks that “metaphor” is nonsense early in the play, I admit that I rankled a bit, thinking something along the lines of: Oh, so this playwright thinks all autistic people think and talk with absolute literalism! Emma clearly loves metaphor and uses it very skillfully! Then I clamped down on my kneejerk reaction and recognized that the author was telling Christopher’s truth, not Emma’s. Christopher was a person.
In or out of the theater, I’m really annoyed by the ASD label and the gross misrepresentations of autistic people with cookie cutter characteristics which are total nonsense, particularly when used to define a group comprised of millions of individuals: Lack of empathy and compassion. Literal thinking. I could just as easily write an essay describing the “symptoms” of NASD (Non-Autistic Spectrum Disorder): self-obsessed, easily bored, oblivious to their surroundings, ruthlessly ambitious (or woefully apathetic), etc. etc. etc.
Given the amount of buzz this play is generating, I’m certain most people in the audience knew that the main character was autistic. What assumptions were packed in their bias baggage when they walked in the theater? What new assumptions were bulging out the sides when they walked out? Did they go away thinking Christopher was Autism personified, the spectrum poster boy? I have no idea. Did they automatically assume that the characters of Christopher’s father and mother represented every father of every autistic kid? I certainly hope not.
My own bias baggage was bursting at the seams before the play began. I was hoping for the best (a dear and very generous friend had given us the tickets and I wanted to rave about how wonderful it was) but I braced myself for the worst: the usual onslaught of tired and untrue generalizations about autism. I was very pleasantly surprised that the words “autism” and “autistic” were never spoken by any character. The audience is told that Christopher is in a special-education type school, but there are no teachers or doctors hammering home his diagnosis.
I was relieved that many of my “autistic cliché” buttons remained unpushed, yet there were some scenes that were especially difficult for me, like when Christopher ridicules the non-speaking and more severely disabled kids in his class, calling them “stupid” and “lazy.” I found that very upsetting, since Emma would be one of the kids he underestimates in such a demeaning way. However, I was able to see that viewpoint as Christopher’s truth (or the author/playwright projecting himself into Christopher’s character), which made it less personally offensive. It did hurt to hear things like that, but the pain I experienced was much less than the anguish I felt when Christopher learns how deeply his father has betrayed him.
As the parent of an autistic person, the scenes of Christopher’s journey to London by himself were the most harrowing. Looking back now, I wonder if my experience was really so much different than others in the audience. Perhaps some of them were also parents of autistics, and knew firsthand how terrifying it is to lose sight of your child in a crowd, knowing he or she will be overwhelmed and/or confused by sensory bombardment, or worse, that your child will be unable to speak well enough to tell anyone who their parents are, or where they live.
I’m quite sure that many of the audience members were parents of non-autistics. Maybe they also knew how terrifying it was to lose their children, even though their kids didn’t have sensory or speech issues. And even if they had never experienced that kind of loss as parent, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine it. A lost child is every parent’s worst nightmare (not having an autistic child, Mr. Brantley).
I doubt that this type of situation would be difficult to imagine for people who weren’t parents at all, and never will be. Haven’t we all had a childhood experience of being lost and alone? Don’t we still fear it as adults?
I’m not sure whether these distinctions between audience members really matter, outside of one’s ability to openly experience the inner lives and outward circumstances of the characters. All the characters in this and every well-written play represent some aspect of our shared humanity. Most people can relate in some way to well-drawn characters (even the monsters), because their essential humanity or lack of humanity speaks to our own felt and imagined worlds.
It is mentioned on a few occasions in the play that Christopher, “doesn’t like to be touched.” As Emma’s father, I know how painful it feels to not be able to hug Emma when she’s crying after an injury or upset. I want to comfort her (and myself, if I’m being honest). But Emma doesn’t want me to hug her like that. It makes her feel even more distressed. So yes, I felt that pain acutely every time it happened in the play–and it happened a lot. But again, I suspect that people who never had a parenting experience like mine felt a high degree of empathy (with both Christopher and his parents) when he pushed away his too-huggy mother and father.
One of my favorite recurring elements in the play was a tender hand-touching-hand routine between Christopher and his parents. It was clear that they had developed this interaction as a means of conveying their mutual love, concern, understanding and trust. I wonder what our world would be like if we were obliged to communicate without words when we were hurt or upset–where only a simple, silent pressing of palm against palm had to convey all our thoughts and emotions. I suspect it would be a helpful improvement, at least for us “talkers,” as Emma refers to non-autistic people like myself.
I so often get into trouble with words. Yet as a writer, as well as a person, spoken language is my primary communication toolbox. Emma has said that she doesn’t think in words. I still don’t fully understand what that means, how Emma really does think, or perceive the world, but I imagine it’s more like Christopher than myself.
“I see everything!” Christopher exclaims on the train to London, as scenes of the countryside flash by in the windows. Then he describes everything he sees at an accelerating pace, building to a crescendo of overwhelming sound, light and sensation. Fortunately for all of us, theater isn’t limited to words. Nor was the playwright Simon Stephens and the director Marianne Elliott, who did a spectacular job of utilizing every aspect of the form, to not only entertain, but to touch us as deeply and intimately as two palms pressed silently together.