Love and Communication (Review)

NKU Y.E.S. Festival production about autism needs focus

Watching new scripts in their initial productions can be a double-edged sword: While it’s exciting to be among the first audiences to see a brand-new play, there are often rough edges. Within James Christy’s Love and Communication is a heartfelt, painful story about two parents dealing with the difficulties of raising an autistic child. (That's playwright Christy in the photo.)

But the new script, one of three plays produced during the biennial Y.E.S. Festival at Northern Kentucky University (NKU), tries to do too many things and dilutes its impact. Rob (John Scheller) and Meg (Meghan Logue) disagree about the best course of action regarding their 4-year-old son, Sammie, who is autistic. Rob is angry at their school district, which he feels does not have the necessary expertise or resources but which has assessed Sammie at a level that will keep him in a classroom setting that Rob deems inadequate.

Meg is attracted to a home-based therapy that is guided by a series of DVDs and other online support. The strife over which path to follow is no doubt one that many parents of kids like Sammie have experienced. It can lead to some strange, even inappropriate behavior — and we see that in Love and Communication. (The play’s title is a reference to the Pop tune by Cat Power and to the therapy program, which goes by the acronym “LAC.”)

Interestingly, Sammie is not portrayed by an actor. Instead, his presence is made real by occasional sound effects and by scenes in which the parents mime interacting with him. At first I found this odd and disconnected: Then it dawned on me that it was meant to represent the closed-off world in which such kids exist, and how the parents must struggle with dealing with a child whose responses are blank. Meg observes that Sammie has beautiful eyes, but they are more like closed doors than open windows.

Four more characters play parts in Rob and Meg’s search. Julia (Meaghan Sharrard) is the founder of an expensive private school where Rob is desperate to enroll Sammie. Regina (Hayley Powell) is an officious school administrator whose assessment will determine Sammie’s fate. Silverman (Nick Vannoy) is the smooth-talking autism expert on DVD who becomes more and more real to Meg. Ephraim (Tim Hein) is an unexpected, second-act role that twists the plot in a strange direction.

I don’t want to give too much away, because playwright James Christy clearly intended his second act to offer a bit of humor. But Ephraim’s strange insertion into the story becomes a distraction to the more serious dramatic strains that have been woven in Act I. An additional unbelievable component of the tale is Rob’s inappropriate relationship with Julia, a seduction undertaken to advance his cause and then oddly revealed to his wife in a soap-opera twist that is thoroughly distracting.

The anger and frustration experienced by Meg and Rob (and believably portrayed by Logue and Scheller) is enough to drive this tale. Their interaction with Regina, played with steadfast condescension by Powell, seemed very real. The antagonistic sessions between her and the parents also serve to reveal issues that go beyond their specific case, especially when she pointedly reminds them that Sammie cannot be “cured” and that their desire for a more expensive school might have more to do with their own needs than with Sammie’s.

NKU’s production, staged by faculty member Mary Jo Beresford, makes good use of its actors, who are all slightly too young for their roles (except for Hein), but who play their parts convincingly. The set, designed by Rob Kerby and lit by Andrew Hungerford, is a constricted apartment cluttered with Sammie’s toys and a mini-trampoline that Sammie reverts to when his parents bicker (represented by sound effects created by Nick Blank).

Presented in NKU’s Stauss Theatre, a black-box venue, Love and Communication is a script that has promise but needs focus.

LOVE AND COMMUNICATION, presented as part of Northern Kentucky University's Year End Series (Y.E.S.) Festival of New Plays, continues through April 26. Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.

CityBeat reviews the two other Y.E.S. productions: Shock & Awe here and Nightjars here.