By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
A recent cover story in American Theatre discussed how the national network of prominent children's theater in cities such as Minneapolis, Seattle, St. Louis, and Dallas was beginning to generate plays without "blue or pink plaid (and) fake furry animal costumes." Issues of race, sexuality, and mortality had been introduced in sensitive spoonfuls not laced with the usual treacle and trickery that adults think kids require. Mind you, this is usually because after years of being forced to deal with those issues in adulthood, the grown-ups are the ones who scream for mercy and scurry for a safe place. Indeed, parents who thought they were using the stage as a high-minded form of narcotic--plop the kids behind the footlights instead of in front of the cathode ray tube and let them turn their brains off--instead discover themselves confronting uncomfortable, if rarely explicit, material right alongside the tykes.
This last reality struck me hard as I sat among an audience of parents and offspring absorbing Bless Cricket, Crest Toothpaste, and Tommy Tune, the stunning world premiere offered by Dallas Children's Theater. "Absorb" is the best verb I can think of for this cunning yet empathetic script, expertly realized by director Robyn Flatt and her cast, about an adolescent girl dealing with her older brother, who has Down syndrome. In moments when the remarkable Derik Webb is onstage as Tom--the "shameful" sibling with a taste for tap dance, popcorn, and trouble--all eyes were riveted, all breaths held in check. The kids, many of them younger than the ideal 10- to 12-year-old target for this show, moved not a centimeter, a rarity at any DCT performance. For once, it was OK to stare--hell, their parents had paid to let them stare--and wonder why it was that person looked and acted like he did. "Mommy, is he sick?" was the only voice heard in the audience, from a 5-year-old sitting in his mother's lap.
And, throughout much of the show, I'd say while the children were fascinated, the adults were twitching in their skin. Webb was so convincing that I asked a DCT official at intermission if they'd applied prosthetic makeup around his eyes to create the heavy folds of a Down person (they had not). He was so authentic that a number of the adults (including me) couldn't help but wonder if the kids being riveted to his wet, gaping mouth and half-comprehensible nasal chatter was a good thing. I have a theory about people with discernable mental and physical disabilities--grown-ups are uncomfortable around them not because they're different, but because they remind us of our own neediness and vulnerability. If you subscribe to the idea that the process of maturity is building boundaries and supports around the utter vincibility you began with as an infant, then a person with Down syndrome is you with all those years of hard work stripped away. Adults want to turn away because they hate to think of anyone--themselves or their children--so in need of constant protection from the world, let alone from the stares of one kid who immediately says whatever pops into his head.
Dallas Children's Theater resident playwright Linda Daugherty had a brother with Down syndrome, and it took her 10 years to get Bless Cricket, Crest Toothpaste, and Tommy Tune in a workable form on the page. The show is too economical and blessedly unpedantic to be an exorcism, but that's in large part because of DCT founder Flatt's assured way of guiding the actors between sentimentality and shock. Cricket (Kelly Abbott) is a young woman who puts enormous pressure on herself to make straight A's, although the arrival of puberty and a notebook-scribbling crush on a classmate named Reese (Matthew Hutchens) threatens to wrench her punishing concentration away from studies. She's already turned school into a sanctuary where she can escape Tom, who, like many of the severest Down sydrome cases, is exhausting, exasperating, and endearing in the same moment. But he's just plain embarrassing to Cricket when anyone from the outside world catches a glimpse of him, and she concocts a far-fetched science-project scheme with Reese to try to cure Tom.
That plan is really only incidental to the play, which isn't plotted so much as composed of interconnected domestic scenes of frustration and sadness. Luckily, DCT has selected a sterling cast to give real impact to this flipping through the photo album of a family's least proud moments. Three years ago, Derik Webb starred in the Children's Theatre production of David Saar's The Yellow Boat, another semi-autobiographical play in which a young hemophiliac contracts HIV and dies of AIDS. He was an unaffected and generous stage presence then, but the role of Tom requires him to assemble and wear the physical characteristics of a Down syndrome teenager like a stage mask. He does it with equally remarkable generosity and nimble instincts for comic timing within his gallery of mannerisms. Of course, it's easy for a talented actor in such a role to hog all the attention, but Kelly Abbott as the mortified Cricket and Matthew Hutchens as her goofball would-be paramour Reese contribute every bit as much to the show's comfortable way around a discomfiting topic. Abbott, in particular, is sophisticated in relating crisis moments of emotion to the audience; I'd love to see her try material with a sexual charge aimed at adults. She is harrowing in the play's nightmarish fantasy sequence where doctors blithely remove Tom's brain and dump it in a wastebasket. With kaleidoscopic lights and images from archaic textbooks and Terry Gilliam's Monty Python animation swirling behind her, Abbott pursues her fading brother with a panic born of love and shame. Abbott, like the entire production of Bless Cricket, Crest Toothpaste, and Tommy Tune, knows how to tangle messy feelings and yet highlight, for our benefit, exactly what they are and where and how they twist and overlap.
Bless Cricket, Crest Toothpaste, and Tommy Tune runs through May 21 at the Crescent Theater, 2215 Cedar Springs. Call (214) 978-0110.