Review: As An Ode to Autism, “Spectrum” at Mixed Blood hits its mark!

This theater review is by TC Jewfolk’s witty and fabulous writer Hal Senal, with Special Guest Amanda Senal, MOTR/L.

Ken LaZebnik’s tender, funny, and utterly awesome play, On the Spectrum, is the kind of art that makes me proud to be a critic.

Not that this should come as a surprise to anyone who knows me or reads my articles, but I was overcome by emotion, upon seeing the world premiere of LaZebnik’s perfect ode to austism, which I was generously given free tickets to, by Mixed Blood Theatre Company, for the purpose of this review.

Joining me, throughout this review will be my very own wife, Amanda Senal, MOTR/L (don’t worry folks: she had to explain that one to me, too. Simply put: she’s an Occupational Therapist who works closely with children diagnosed with many different variances of autism to Asperger’s; a certain range known as the autism Spectrum).

The play revolves around a mother, Elisabeth (played with graceful, fierce, yet subtle strength by Regina Marie Williams), her son Mac (a witty, playful yet sincere performance by Skyler Nowinski), who suffers from Asberger’s, which is on the said autism Spectrum, and Autistic Iris (a truly remarkable performance by Laura Robinson; in what could have been, if placed in the wrong hands, a showy, irritating performance, the actress somehow manages to imbue her character with a vitality and a spirit that is nothing less than brave, admirable and, really, kind of miraculous).

When boy meets girl in person, for the first time, after a series of online professional dealings, their attraction—not to mention, their chemistry—is both palpable and heartwarming. We want these two characters to be together, they deserve love, as well as each other. However, Elisabeth has her doubts and, as such, is protective of her young son’s future.

Now, I’m no expert, when it comes to Autism and the whole spectrum, other than my experiences watching other portrayals, now branded in the pantheon of pop culture, such as “Rain Man.”

So, with that, I shall defer, now, to my lovely spouse, Amanda, as to whether or not the play portrays Autism realistically…

My first hand experience with Autism, Asperger’s Syndrome, and Autism Spectrum Disorder, is limited to children from ages 2 to 16 years old (actually, children younger than 4 will almost always receive an initial diagnosis of Pervasive Developmental Disorder, before being tested and given the official diagnosis).

Skyler Nowinski’s portrayal of Mac was authentic to that of a well-adjusted adult who has been through years of therapies; and LaZebnik got it all right! Occupational Therapy and Feldenkrais, oh my!

Although, the poor Speech Therapists were left out!

Mac’s characteristic muscle twitches, overly accentuated speech, literal interpretation of all spoken conversations, and personal need to explain sarcasm and jokes, was spot on.

However, what is very important to remember, in a public representation of highly ridiculed disorders, such as these, is that what was seen on stage was not stereotyping, and, indeed, it was only one representation each, of autism and Asperger’s. LaZebnik said it best in his notes to the audience in the program (and he quoted a commonly used saying): “When you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.”   I think it’s all the more important to remember this, especially when discussing Iris’ character, as she is on one extreme of the Autism spectrum.

Another point that I think is important to keep in mind, when discussing or learning about the autism spectrum, is that most people think of a spectrum as a continuum…with two extremes, and everything in between.

However, autism has more than just one dimension on a line continuum, from high to low. I believe it is a three-dimensional spectrum, with each individual falling on the “spectrum” with three different axis. While I cannot define what those axis contain or span, it is most certainly not a straight line from point A to point B.

I say this because, while Iris was at one extreme with her “stimming behaviors and decreased hygiene, she was at another extreme, in that she was able to live independently and create her own online world.

This is not a commonly thought-of combination of extremes for the general public; however, it is a very realistic one in my world of OT.

Well, there ya have it, ladies and germs! That’s my lovely and brilliant wife’s professional review of the play!

As always, it’s nice to have company; and just as LaZebnik’s shining gem of a play illustrates, sometimes, you need another person—the absolutely right person!—to guide you through the darkness and into the light.

Even if they’re on another end of the spectrum.

Eds Note: “On the Spectrum” is playing at Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis until November 27th.  Buy your tickets at the door, or register for FREE tickets (yes, I said free), on Mixed Blood’s website through their revolutionary “Radical Hospitality” program.