Impossible to not love

(From left) Neo Swee Lin, Andrew Marko, Tan Kheng Hua and Adrian Pang in Falling.
(From left) Neo Swee Lin, Andrew Marko, Tan Kheng Hua and Adrian Pang in Falling.PHOTO: CRISPIAN CHAN

Falling depicts the exquisite pain of a family caring for a child with special needs

REVIEW / THEATRE

FALLING

Pangdemonium

KC Arts Centre - Home of Singapore Repertory Theatre

Last Saturday

Pangdemonium has perfected the neat balancing act of presenting theatre which entertains and also educates. Next To Normal in 2013 and this year's The Effect had characters struggling with mental illness. Last year's Tribes explored communication difficulties in a family where one child is deaf.

Falling by American playwright Deanna Jent is yet another winner. Based on Jent's own experiences as the mother of an autistic child, Falling shows the tremendous strain placed on a family where one child has special needs.

Andrew Marko dominates the stage as 18-year-old Josh, a lumbering child in a giant's body, whose inexplicable fits of rage terrify social workers and his sister Lisa (played competently by Fiona Lim).

Josh's parents Bill (Adrian Pang) and Tami (Tan Kheng Hua) accommodate their son's behavioural quirks, deploy code words and tricks to manage his rages and have little time left for their own personal needs or Lisa's.

The household's balancing act teeters on the verge of catastrophe when Bill's deeply religious mother Nana visits. Nana - a naive, nearly two-dimensional character given heart-warming solidity by Neo Swee Lin - believes prayer and biblical verses can cure Josh.

His parents believe otherwise. They need understanding and extra hands to relieve the burden of caregiving, not judgment and demands that Josh conform to social norms of behaviour.

  • BOOK IT / FALLING

  • WHERE: KC Arts Centre - Home of Singapore Repertory Theatre, 20 Merbau Road

    WHEN: Till June 5, 8pm (Tuesday to Saturday), 3pm (weekend)

    ADMISSION: $40 to $55 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg)

    INFO: Some violent content. No admission for children below 12 years old. For persons with autism or looking to attend with guests with autism, contact Pangdemonium at ticketing@ pangdemonium.com for details

Amid a stellar cast, directed by Tracie Pang, Marko shines as Josh and rightfully so. It is Josh's patterns of behaviour that shape the behaviour of his family and also the layout of his home.

A calendar of activities, a marble jar for bribes and a box of feathers for stress relief are all part of the believably lived-in look created by Wong Chee Wai and Chris Chua.

Pang and Tan play neatly off each other, just as they did in The Effect. Pang as Bill provides a stoic solidity sadly not enough to ground the tightly wound Tami - Tan as every- mother, every heart-breakingly exhausted parent sacrificing her life in slivers to give a child some small, unappreciated comfort.

Tami is absorbed in and exhausted by Josh, but is unable to let go except in a few fantasy turns where she wails rock songs, aided by James Tan's lights and Guo Ningru's sound design.

The family's woes are a microcosm of a larger social quandary. The programme booklet includes the story of Donald Grey Triplett, now 82, who was the first to be diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.

Triplett is still alive and living in Forest, Mississippi, where the 3,000-strong community has, consciously or unconsciously, accepted him as one of their own.

Accepting those with special needs comes at a cost depicted powerfully in Falling. It means accepting that this seemingly abnormal person also has normal needs for sexual relief and affection, but may never be able to satisfy these needs in another. It means physical and mental hurt when misunderstandings happen. It means unconditional love, an emotionally draining one-sided commitment to the needs of another human being over one's own.

It also means more safety nets are needed for those in such positions.

The clear-eyed depiction of these problems makes Falling a must- watch.

It is a mirror for anyone who knows the exquisite pain of caring for a loved one with special needs. It is an eye-opener for anyone who thinks they have the answers.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 16, 2016, with the headline 'Impossible to not love'. Print Edition | Subscribe