Connor's exasperated dad desperately wants his autistic son to try riding a bike and get some exercise. He is yelling like a banshee.
Connor, is equally exasperated and overstimulated from his dad's pushy tirade. He is also yelling as he wildly flaps his arms. The moment is charged. I fully expected someone in the audience to stand up and yell, "Stop!!" It was almost me.
This is theater that goes for the gut.
This is "Beautiful Boy," People's Light and Theatre Company's current work-in-progress and it is anchored in the messy world of self-discovery as a father learns, rejects, fumbles, avoids, and accepts the unexpected life that his son introduces as a child diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.
"Beautiful Boy" is a hero-less wonder. It is an autobiographical look into the world of playwright and PLTC Associate Artistic Director Pete Pryor, and his wife Jody and his son Colin (called Connor Repetta in the play) along with the collection of social workers, therapists, doctors, and other health care providers who infiltrate
the family's world.
The work offers a perspective bonanza because the point-of-view is always in motion. The father, Richard Repetta, played by Lindsay Smiling, simultaneously wrestles with and avoids dealing with the daily realities of autism as he navigates his spectrum of love. Aubie Merrylees, as Connor, seamlessly straps on multiple characters at sometimes breakneck speed and, in one exchange, deftly delivers one therapist's admonishment, stating, "You need to sober up and see this is going to be along journey for you and your wife." (Merrylees' ability to cleanly don so many personas in split second changeovers left me breathless.)
Pryor manages to communicate being overwhelmed while decisively sharing the prickly details of Connor's dimension-filled life. The ground beneath them is always changing while their humanity is spilling over. The parents slog through the excruciating delays to diagnosis, the poundage of paperwork, and the unending parade of diagnostic acronyms attached to autism as they struggle to be Connor's advocates. It sometimes feels they are clinging to a fistful of sand.
One scene involves Richard firing a beloved therapist who has been working with Connor for a long while after the therapist takes exception to a fierce familial argument. It is startling, perhaps because we don't want to challenge those on 'Team Connor.' Just as this show is in-process, so, too, is Connor's family and the collection of people who affect his life.
In a post-production discussion with actors Smiling, Merrylees and Tom Bryn, who gives stage directions, it was revealed that when Merrylees (noted in the program as playing Connor and Everyone Else) changes characters, the script notes the roles are "Connor AS that character." Each person is written as Connor sees them. Here lies the gift in this moving production - Connor's viewpoint holds equal value with everyone else's. He matters.
Also telling were the consistent audience comments about the show's impact. One gentleman recalled life with his special needs sibling and how the show brought his deep emotions to light. Another father noted how the show made him relive some of his frustration and focus in devoting his life to a child with needs. All were moved by the honesty of the production.
Interspersed throughout the sparse piece is humor. Humor allows the more somber notes to flow so we can safely enter this family's life and witness their fecund experience.
The PLTC work opens with Richard recounting a sledding adventure alongside young Connor as a sort of hint to the theatrical ride that is about to unfold. In full circle mode, it closes with a video of the pair swishing down a snowy hill together with a piano rendition Lennon's song, "Beautiful Boy," in the background.
John Lennon's sweet ode to his son Sean, touchingly states the reality we all know but often want to ignore:
"Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans."
Pryor's piece keeps this evolving truth in motion.