PAW stages autism drama

Lucy is a 13-year-old girl living on the spectrum of autism. That’s how it’s talked about these days: a spectrum of behaviors and symptoms adding up to a diagnosable syndrome, one that people can point to and identify – yet the condition continues to stymie even the most astute professionals in the field and the most loving, steadfast parents as well. In Damien Atkins’ provocative play, Lucy’s mother is both professional (a career anthropologist) and a parent (albeit an estranged one, having given the challenging daughter over to her ex-husband long ago). When the ex decides to remarry, he asks Vivian to take care of Lucy for a year: a proposition that at first terrifies the woman with no maternal instincts. Soon her scientific curiosity kicks in, and she applies her research skills to arrive at some startling conclusions about autism and evolution.

The Performing Arts of Woodstock (PAW) present Lucy at St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church for a run opening on November 3 and ending November 19. Directed by Sharon Breslau, the production includes Terri Mateer as Vivian, Georgia Belmont as Lucy, Chris Grady as the girl’s father Gavin, David Griffiths as her therapist and Meg Belmont as Julia, Vivian’s assistant.

As the play opens, both mother and daughter are thrown by the immediate difficulties that their new arrangement poses. Soon the mother – a woman also inclined to keep her own company and live in her own mental realm – is questioning the validity of Lucy’s diagnosis, based on her observation that “normal” might be an elusive category in itself.

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The play broaches the history of autism and how it’s now defined for the purposes of caring for and educating individuals on the spectrum. Patterns of behavior began to emerge and become identified in the 1940s and ‘50s, but no one can confirm that the condition hasn’t been showing up in the human family for ages. “Although this is a story about one girl with autism, you begin to notice we’re all on that spectrum somewhere. Where is your comfort zone in today’s overwhelming, confronting world?” asks Breslau. She points to contemporary thinking around autism’s causes – mercury in fish, childhood vaccinations, environmental co-factors? – and with the ever-shifting parameters of its diagnosis. Treatments vary widely, from behavioral modification to more biomedical approaches, including diet and detoxification of the body.

“In addition to that,” she says, noting that young people on the Asperger’s end of the spectrum thrive on their social media connections, “we all live in this social networking morass, looking for every way to not have contact with each other face to face. It’s virtual social-ness. Should we be moving in that direction?” Indeed, as a newfound love between a mother and daughter surfaces, Lucy provokes such questions, both through the mother’s revelations and through her disturbing new theory of human evolution.

Australian-born Damien Atkins is playwright-in-residence at the Canadian Stage Company and at the University of British Columbia, and has received a Dora Award nomination for Best New Play for Lucy. Breslau offers, “Lucy is very well-crafted, and the dialogue is perfect. Atkins is asking the audience to ‘step into their shoes’ through a medium juxtaposed against the issues of autism for the ones who cannot step into anyone’s shoes.”

Lucy will be staged nine times at St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church Hall at 2578 Route 212 in Woodstock, on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, November 3, 4, 5, 10, 11, 12, 17, 18 and 19 at 7:30 p.m. There are no Sunday performances. Tickets are $17 general admission, $14 for students and seniors. For reservations call (845) 679-7900. St. Gregory’s is currently building a therapeutic “garden for autism”: a space focusing on all the senses, to be enjoyed by the whole community. The proceeds of the November 4th performance will go to benefit this project.

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