Sunday, May 14, 2017

Faulty Powers

Science has helped to codify the birth process without needing to rely on fairy tales and magic spells to explain how a baby is made. As a result, few people still believe that a stork delivers their infant in a bundle of joy hanging from its beak.

Most infants are born in a state of innocence, able to draw their first breath without too much trouble. Whether a child is born into comfort or poverty, certain developmental problems may be discovered during gestation. Some children arrive with noticeable birth defects.

It takes time for certain secondary traits (left-handedness, shyness, sexual orientation) as well as a wide range of neurological conditions (hearing impairment, color blindnessdyslexia) to surface. Conditions related to genetic disorders (such as hemophilia, sickle-cell anemia, Huntington's chorea, and familial hypercholesterolemia) may not become immediately apparent; symptoms of mental illness may not manifest for years.

As toddlers begin acquiring language skills, one of their favorite words is "Why?" Hearing that question relentlessly repeated can drive a parent to distraction. However, once a child is diagnosed with a condition that will require life-long care (Type-1 diabetes, Down syndrome, post-traumatic stress disorder), the parents become the family members who relentlessly keep asking why this should ever have happened to their child. Or to them.

As the Trump administration viciously continues to cut educational and healthcare services for people with disabilities and mental illnesses, the anguish and toxic stress levels of their caregivers continues to rise. Two recent dramas do a superb job of showing the vast reserves of energy, patience, and determination necessary to support a child with special needs (while pointing out what can go wrong without parental guidance and a sturdy support system). Together, these works raise sobering questions about the impact of "nature versus nurture."

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Documentaries about competitive events usually follow a standard path by identifying a handful of contestants, developing a backstory for each entrant, and showing where their respective strengths and weaknesses lie. After that, the path to a trophy may be marred by insecurity, physical setbacks, bad luck, and technicalities. Will the oddball rise to the top or will the best connected contestant walk away with the prize? Will the contest take place on a level playing field or will deceptive maneuvering deprive a contestant of a chance to win, place, or show?

In recent years, much scorn has been leveled at the practice of handing out "self-esteem" awards for simply participating in an event but, as one watches Laura Stolman's poignant new documentary, Swim Team, one witnesses the aching moment when, due to a technicality, what should have been a triumphant gold medal win is downgraded to a simple award for participation.

Poster art for Swim Team

Many viewers will find it impossible not to sympathize with the team that has just been deprived of winning first place in a relay race. Why? Because the members of the Jersey Hammerheads Special Olympics Swim Team are autistic teenagers.

With one in 26 boys on the autistic spectrum, New Jersey has the highest rate of autism in the United States. Although some autistic children can attend school while participating in special ed classes, it's difficult for them to build the kind of friendships that will get them invited into other families' homes. A major concern for their parents is what will happen when an autistic child legally becomes an adult and wants to live independently. Although the child can opt to remain in New Jersey's educational system until the age of 21, the power to make that decision rests with someone who may not have the mental acuity to assess their own needs.

"Mikey" McQuay with his father, Mike, in a scene from Swim Team

The core action in Stolman's documentary takes place at the Raritan Bay YMCA in Perth Amboy, where Maria and Mike McQuay have been running a competitive swim team for autistic teens. Their motivation is simple: Their autistic son likes to swim. Mikey's father trains his swimmers to aim high and encourages them to avoid self-pity. The three strongest swimmers on his team are:
  • Mike McQuay, Jr., who gets unconditional love from his parents, even when he just wants to be left alone. A high school senior who is looking forward to attending the class prom, Mikey has an obvious love for animals (as evidenced by his large collection of stuffed toys).
  • Robert Justino, a handsome young teen who speaks carefully and would like to design video games. Not yet aware of his autism, Robert's mother is trying to find the right moment to get him to open up to a discussion about what makes him different from the other children at school.
  • Kelvin Truong, a strong swimmer with a much more volatile personality than Mikey or Robert. Because of the violent body tics and verbal outbursts caused by his Tourette's syndrome, Kelvin can't eat in restaurants, socialize easily, or participate in activities that most families would take for granted. There are numerous places in his home where Kelvin has punched or kicked holes in the wall and a sign on his bedroom door states that "Kelvin is only allowed to hit pillows and his mattress."

Kelvin Truong, Robert Justino, Mikey McQuay,
and Maria McQuay in a scene from Swim Team

While Swim Team outlines the structure of Special Olympics competitions ranging from area to state and national, the emphasis remains primarily local. As Stolman explains:
“When people ask me how I found the story of Swim Team, I say it found me. Children with developmental disabilities are routinely excluded from community activities, often as early as preschool. Being told that your child can’t be in the regular class, your child won’t keep up in Little League, your child isn’t going to college -- is something families caring for children with disabilities hear often. As a mother, I was so personally inspired by what they hoped to accomplish, I knew I had to share their story. I hope my film provides inspiration for families everywhere raising children with unanticipated challenges.”
Robert Justino in a scene from Swim Team

Not only does Stolman's 100-minute documentary (which will be screened at this year's San Francisco DocFest) benefit from the fine camerawork of Laela Kilbourn and a musical score composed by Mark Suozzo, it shows how parents with autistic children have learned to communicate effectively while trying to respect their child's limits and, occasionally, walking on eggshells.

Although Mike McQuay gives his all as the team's swim coach, his boys continue to rise to the challenges they face (both as athletes and as teenagers with autism). By the film's end, Mikey has been hired for a summer job working at the Turtle Back Zoo in West Orange, New Jersey, where his patience with and love for animals is an obvious asset. Kelvin has been accepted into a janitorial position and Robert has been given a special leadership award by his school's head coach.

Far from the standard sports documentary, Swim Team shows what can happen when high-functioning autistic teens are guided, encouraged, and allowed to succeed (Mikey states that when he is in the water he almost feels "normal").  Here's the trailer:


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Swim Team demonstrates the need for autistic children to receive unconditional love and, when possible, be engaged in activities at home, at school, and in the community. David Greig's challenging 2013 drama, The Events, deals with a teenage boy whose mother died when he was 12. Left to his own devices, he became increasingly isolated, managed to purchase a gun, entered a community center, and started shooting. When only one bullet remained, he asked the two women cowering before him which one he should shoot.

The structure of Greig's play presents several challenges to the audience. The protagonist is Claire (Julia McNeal), a priest and leader of a community choir who survived the gruesome events in which many people she knew met an early death. To no one's surprise, Claire (who is dealing with the psychological effects of post-traumatic stress disorder and survivor's guilt) is obsessed with discovering what motivated the boy to kill people. As she tells the audience “I don’t want to understand what happened to me. I know what happened to me. I want to understand what happened to him.” The burning question for her is: Why?

Julia McNeal as Claire in The Events (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli) 

The role of The Boy (Caleb Cabrera) can be confusing for audiences because the actor must essentially perform as a shape shifter with the fluidity to personify the gunman as well as Claire’s lover, her therapist, a politician, and a kindly stranger. Because the action is structured as a continual flow of short scenes (with minimal costumes changes made in front of the audience), Cabrera must rely on his voice, body language, and a hoodie to accomplish most of these rapid character transformations.

Caleb Cabrera as The Boy in The Events (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli) 

The Events was commissioned by the Actors Touring Company and initially staged in August 2013 at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh as part of a co-production with the Young Vic Theatre in London, Schauspielhaus Wein in Vienna, and Brageteatret in Buskerud. The playwright was inspired by July 22, 2011's gruesome massacre of 77 innocent people at a summer camp on Ut√łya (a small island in Norway's scenic Tyrifjorden lake) by far-right extremist Anders Behring Breivik. Greig's script contains a unique stipulation for any theatre company wishing to stage The Events: a different community choir is to sing at each performance as they (along with the audience) witness and experience The Events for the very first time.

The ever-fearless Shotgun Players is staging The Events under the direction of Susannah Martin, with Jake Rodriguez's excellent sound design heightening the tension throughout this 90-minute drama. As Ms. Martin explains:
"Every time events like these happen, I ask the questions Claire asks. I find very few answers, feel hopeless, and stop my search. Another event happens, the same cycle repeats. These days, it is easy to wander the world in a state of perpetual grief, asking why. There is so much we don’t know about each other. Who shaped us? What motivates us and drives us to do the things we do? Even in -- especially in -- our 'connected' world, is it possible to find any understanding of someone else?"
Caleb Cabrera (The Boy) and Julia McNeal (Claire) star in The Events
(Photo by: Cheshire Isaacs) 
"In these strange times, I am grateful for a play like this -- a play that is both salt in the wound and a balm to the soul. I am grateful that the play asks the questions that it asks us, and sends us, with Claire, on a search for clarity and understanding. It pushes us to embrace our darkness in order to find the light within the abyss. It invites us to sit with, even sing with, strangers and commune and communicate in the midst of our difference. The play provides no easy answers, no box to put people in. And yet, it shows that rebirth is possible even though evil is -- and will always be -- in the world."
Julia McNeal (Claire) and Caleb Cabrera (The Boy) in
a scene from The Events (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli) 

Working on a simple unit set designed by Angrette McCloskey (with musical direction by Lisa Quoresimo), the opening night performance featured the Gallimaufry Chamber Chorus. While it's no secret that Shotgun's artistic director, Patrick Dooley, likes a challenge, he stresses that:
"I'm incredibly drawn to stories of people who are pushed to their extremes, because that's where the truths of the human experience can be revealed. For a theatre company that often talks about how it's trying to reimagine what it means to be a community theater, The Events offers the incredible challenge -- and opportunity -- that we must recruit and engage so many choirs. Yes, this is incredibly difficult -- but what a blessing to get to introduce so many wonderful artists to our theatre. What an opportunity to introduce our audience to all these artists!"
While Julia McNeal gives a rock-solid performance as Claire, I was most impressed by the work of Caleb Cabrera, a young, lithe actor whose performance strengths continue to deepen with each new challenge. Whether leaping atop furniture with a cat-like agility, wrapping his arms around Claire in an effort to calm and comfort her, or quietly sitting alone and brooding under his hoodie, this is an impressive talent to watch develop. Special credit goes to assistant director and choir captain Brady Brophy-Hilton, who recruited and coordinated the participation of 15 community choirs for this production.

Performances of The Events continue through June 4 at Shotgun Players in Berkeley (click here for tickets). Here's the trailer:



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