‘Do This’: Struggling with autism at Gulfshore Playhouse
Ideally, you realize you’re in uncharted territory and make your way as best you can, creating your own path.
For the unnamed mother (Carmen Cusack) in “Do This” whose son is diagnosed with autism when he’s 2, that means advocating for him, quitting her job and becoming “the CEO of my son’s life,” as she puts it.
This fictionalized autobiographical one-woman play by Karen Siff Exkorn is enjoying its world premiere at Gulfshore Playhouse, presented by special arrangement with Tony Award-winning producer Ken Davenport.
“Do This” opens with the disembodied voice of an authority declaring that the woman’s son will never speak again. The toddler has stopped talking and appears to be in his own world. He flaps his arms. He spins. He stares into space. He doesn’t like to be touched.
In one of the play’s funnier moments, she wryly contemplates how God chose to give her son autism. Perhaps he was at a typewriter and misspelled the word awesome, she speculates. Or maybe he has a broad Boston accent and was actually saying “artistic,” but the New York temp for the day misunderstood him.
These moments of levity, of dark humor, are sorely needed as she battles bureaucracy, waits days for vital return phone calls and struggles to get help for her son, only to be told there is none available. On the advice of a lawyer, she decides to sue the organization that was supposed to help her, but didn’t.
While realistic, this play is, at times, grueling to sit through. It can feel claustrophobic.
Thankfully, Ms. Cusack, who just concluded her Tony-nominated role in the Steve Martin/Edie Brickell’s Broadway musical “Bright Star,” is engaging and likeable. And the playwright has some great lines that Ms. Cusack tosses off like a comedic pro. She makes us want to go along on the journey with her, as difficult as it is.
But it’s obvious this is still very much a work in progress. (After Naples, the play will be reworked and workshopped in New York City.) “Do This,” which ran 85 minutes the night I saw it, has, in an early incarnation, run for almost two hours. The playwright was still doing rewrites on opening night.
Ms. Exkorn is the author of “The Autism Sourcebook: Everything You Need to Know About Diagnosis, Treatment, Coping, and Healing – from a Mother Whose Child Recovered.” Her play is a more dramatic look at her experiences.
While “Do This” has its moments, I think it could be richer if it veered even more from “what really happened.” While it may be an accurate re-telling of Ms. Exkorn’s experience with her son — which would be great as a written memoir — it doesn’t necessarily stand as a gripping dramatic piece. At least, not how it is right now.
As an audience member, I felt it difficult to sit through the red tape and bureaucracy, the endless therapy sessions the son undergoes where he’s told repeatedly, “Do this.”
The mother quits her job. Her marriage suffers. Her friendships fall by the wayside, as no one really understands what she’s going through.
An interesting scene with a rabbi perks up the play considerably. Not only is it unpredictable — you wonder, where did this come from? Where is this going? — but it’s a surprise. As a member of the audience said in the talk-back after the show, the scene presents an ideal opportunity for the mother to question why bad things happen to good people. Instead, however, she ponders heaven and hell.
The rabbi is also somewhat of an enigma; he believes in reincarnation, not exactly an Old Testament concept.
The ending of the play, when it occurs, seems to happen too suddenly, and is an atypical experience for those struggling with autism. (It was also unclear to many in the audience what the closing words were.)
Ms. Cusack is talented with accents, slipping into the roles of others, such as the various therapists her character consults and fellow shoppers at Loehmann’s, a famous store in Brooklyn where women could buy designer clothing at bargain prices. (The latter’s a particularly humorous scene, and pure New York.) But although her character says she’s a New Yorker, she sometimes sounds Southern, especially when she’s quoting “my mother, the psychiatrist.” That’s confusing.
I was also confused when she started talking about turning her basement into a therapy room for her son and driving the car to the bank. I had pictured her living in Manhattan, and suddenly, I didn’t know where she was.
The play has pieces of promise, but they’re not all fitting together yet. It works best when there is humor, incorporating Ms. Exkorn’s wry observations and clever turns of phrase.
As someone without children, I confess, it was difficult at times to relate to this play.
(However, a friend whose two children have autism was so moved the night she attended, she cried during the performance because she saw her life and her experiences re-enacted on the stage.)
Whether you know anyone with autism might affect how you feel about “Do This.” Ms. Cusack has said she was drawn to the role, in part, because she has two nieces with autism.
Jason Sherwood has created an inviting minimalist set with white gauze curtains and empty picture frames hanging at various levels. There are boxes all over, a black-and-white checkered floor and a rectangle representing the ceiling. It’s a clever, smart set, complemented by lighting by Jimmy Lawlor that changes both mood and locale.
Leon Rothenberg provides subtle soundscapes — the click-clack of a manual typewriter, the twitter of birds in a park. And Genevieve V. Beller clothes the mother in outfits from grubby sweats to tailored skirt.
Tony-nominated director Sheryl Kaller does an apt job with the staging, having Ms. Cusack make the best use of the space. She’s also been highly instrumental in helping shape this play with Ms. Exkorn. But it’s obvious that, at this early point in the play’s development, it needs more molding and finessing.
Ms. Cusack does a superb job with the material she’s given. It’s a challenge to any actor to memorize and perform a one-person play; here, Ms. Cusack has also had to deal with numerous rewrites, cuts and other changes.
As it stands right now, “Do This” seems to have limited appeal, interesting mainly to those who want to know more about autism or those who know people with it. And that’s not a bad thing.
But if the playwright and producer want to make it more universal, they need to do this: open it up more and make it more engaging for all of us. ¦
‘Do This’ world premiere
>> Who: Gulfshore Playhouse
>> When: Through Jan. 28
>> Where: The Norris Center, Naples
>> Cost: $20 to $64
>> Info: (866) 811-4111 or www.gulfshoreplayhouse.org