CEDAR FALLS, IA -- “Uncommon Sense," an original play commissioned by Gallagher Bluedorn Performing Arts Center and the University of Northern Iowa and created and performed by Tectonic Theatre Project of New York City, is an important play about people living on the autism spectrum. With a multi-level but simple set dressed mostly with light and projection, the play presented culled-from-life stories about daily struggles of real people we may not know live quietly among us.
I am struck, still, by the artistry Tectonic Theatre Project portrayed with simple and gentle props: rice tumbling out of a woman’s hand; laundered dress shirts inflating as they are tossed, drifting slowly down to the stage floor; cooked ramen spiralling around the actors’ faces and hands. It was beautiful in its simplicity and made me question how many aspects of life we dismiss without due examination and awe. Or worse: how many people?
The actors gave voice, dignity, and dimension to their characters — all of whom were based upon true stories collected in interviews which began in 2011. A standout among them was Scott Barrow who played the endearing character Dan with humor and heart.
I was also deeply moved by the women who played mothers of autistic sons and daughters. The fears we all have for our children — if they will encounter cruelty or kindness, if we will ever truly know them, if they will be OK when we die — are magnified for parents of children with special needs. The mothers in this production embodied those fears in a way that put pressure on my chest. I couldn’t help but imagine my own child in this situation and it took my breath away.
Along with compelling lighting, projection and acting, the senses were engaged again with the work of sound design. Even in the top balcony, I felt submerged in a body of water as the blurbs and sloshes of water sounds filled the auditorium. One of the characters found his safest home in water. As someone with a moderate fear of water, I was uncomfortable where he found peace. We are all different. The play asked, “What can Moose do that no one else can do?” He can find comfort under water for starters! What else? If we do not ask this question of all those we see as different, we will never know the answer. We will lose their contribution.
It strikes me, as well, that this project found sponsorship from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Iowa Arts Council among other smaller organizations under threat of defunding by our country’s new leadership. I wouldn’t take this review to a political place, though, if the script had not done so first. A character, Annalise, a non-verbal young woman living with her mother, spoke her first-ever sentence through a speech device during the narrative. Her words: Hillary for president. When this sentence was deciphered and spoken out loud by another character, the audience cheered. In this play about voices we fail to hear, it’s tragic to think of the multitude of voices we will lose if our country succumbs to the idea that art is irrelevant.
“Uncommon Sense” is relevant. It’s also funny, tragic, important and gorgeous.