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Location: Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Writer/Curator/Founder of The Autism Acceptance Project. Contributing Author to Between Interruptions: Thirty Women Tell the Truth About Motherhood, and Concepts of Normality by Wendy Lawson, and soon to be published Gravity Pulls You In. Writing my own book. Lecturer on autism and the media and parenting. Current graduate student Critical Disability Studies and most importantly, mother of Adam -- a new and emerging writer.

“There is no hope unmingled with fear, and no fear unmingled with hope.” -- Baruch Spinoza

Friday, April 06, 2007


A Review of LUCY

At CanStage in Toronto is the play LUCY, written by Damien Atkins who, in consultation with Autism Speaks, The Geneva Centre and the University of Toronto’s Department of Anthropology, starring Philppa Domiville as Julia, Tony Munch as Gavin (Lucy’s father), Seana McKenna as Vivian (Lucy’s mother), and Brendan Murray as therapist and head of Lucy’s school, and last but not least, Meg Roe as Lucy.

Named after the well-known fossil known as Lucy, she is one of the oldest and best-preserved skeletons of a hominid (two-footed, humanlike primate). Lucy was of the species Australopithecus afarensis. Her remains were found in Hadar, Ethiopia, in 1974 by American anthropologist Donald Johanson and his student, Tom Gray. During her life, Lucy stood about 3.5 feet tall and weighed close to 65 pounds. The shape of her leg bones, pelvis, and spine indicate that she walked upright. She is estimated to have been between 25 and 30 years old when she died of an unknown cause. Compared with humans, Lucy had a small skull, long arms, and short legs.

It’s interesting to hear a play begin with Lucy, an autistic thirteen-year-old talking, reflecting about the mother she peers on from above. When the spotlight shines on Lucy, she is lucid and not autistic at all, perhaps intended to suggest an ability to self-reflect, to think. The play begins with Gavin, Lucy’ s father divorced from Vivian, her mother, to request that Vivian, an anthropologist, take Lucy for one year so he can connect with his new bride. “I’m exhausted,” he proclaims. “I didn’t think I could have life again.” Vivian, who left Lucy as a baby, eerily reminiscent of refrigerator mother theory, reluctantly usurps her traveling life to welcome this “stranger” into her home. Gavin arrives, schedules in hand. Lucy repeatedly rings the doorbell and once inside, settles into drawing on the floor. “She needs a lot of structure,” says Gavin, telling Vivian to do the same things, buy the same things lest Lucy devolve into a set of tantrums. Lucy also gets accepted into a new autism school after being on a wait list for three years and, “where they can do a lot for her,” he says.

Vivian gets acquainted with her daughter – Lucy turns on the television and takes off her pants. “Put your pants on,” says Vivian, “put them on or no TV.” A battle of wills ensues, Lucy retreats to the bathroom, we hear a few bangs, and comes out with feces on her hands.

“Did you do anything out of her schedule?” asks the brilliant therapist.

“I told her that if she didn’t put on her pants there would be no TV.”

“Her pants are made of corduroy,” he says, “it’s called sensory integration dysfunction. Her pants were painful to her and she was communicating to you that she didn’t want to wear them.”

Is this sounding like an autism 101 class yet? The first act certainly felt that way. Anyone living with an autistic person may have been cringing during this first part of the play. In fact, writer Atkins obviously was so fascinated with all the theories in autism that he had to get them all in there as quickly as possible to the point that the true meat and potatoes of the play – the idea that autism is a form of human evolution – a way for humans to survive in this over-populated, closely knit world – was not really explored. The play chugs along making quick stops at all the autism theories we hear about in the news today. We witness the devoted but exhausted father who “does everything” for his child by enrolling Lucy in endless therapies. We learn that Vivian is “autistic” as she prefers digging fossils in Africa over engaging in social repartee. The play shows Lucy overwhelmed by the therapists in and out of her life with an interesting auditory and visual montage of the voices in her life – of “do this, do that” and “use your words,” echoing painfully in her head.

Vivian becomes the mother obsessed with vaccines and mercury theory – unable to view herself as the genetic material that made up Lucy -- and moves all to quickly to an accepting mother, appreciating the gifts of her daughter. They become the coup d’etat against the outside world of theory and intervention. They bond, they read books together, and Lucy is allowed to express herself in her art. Vivian cuts off all therapy and decides to move to Africa with her daughter to finish her book, and let Lucy be herself. “Don’t you see?” Vivian says to Julia, her assistant. “We are not meant to live this way.” She begins to talk about how civilization is wrapped up in doom and gloom, how people use technology more and more in order NOT to socialize and engage in confrontation. Her theory, based on survival of the fittest, is not that autism is an aberration, but rather, that autistics ARE the future. To Vivian, autistic people are a genetic evolution of human survival – humans that are more pragmatic, who prefer to be alone, who do not get wrapped up in emotional webs that are not working. Contrary to disability, Vivian views Lucy as perfect. “No one will stand with you on this,” says her assistant, Julia.

In an interview in NOW magazine, director Atkins says, "I guess the point of the play is the validity of putting people in categories, boxes that distance you from others and don't allow for real understanding or compassion."

"I feel strongly that Lucy's not aware of her difficulties," says Meg Roe, who plays the young autistic woman. "For that reason I didn't want to know too much about the clinical aspects of autism but rather to draw on behaviours that came from me, from how I am in the world. Creating Lucy was more a matter of exacerbating my own habits, bringing out my own traits in a more intense way. In earlier versions of the script, Lucy screamed a lot; now she's finding different ways to communicate."

I was actually interested that Roe did not talk to autistic individuals before rendering the traits of an autistic young woman. She said in a Canadian television interview that she didn’t want any one autistic person to shape her character. It shows. While Roe may have exacerbated her own traits, she doesn’t quite pull autism off.

"It's hard to know whether what I'm doing is working, because I can't see how I'm affecting the other actors," she notes. "Lucy rarely looks at the others and makes little eye contact. I just have to trust that Damien's text, director Eda Holmes and my own instincts will lead me in the right direction."

The instincts are off. The play is nothing more than a string of stereotypes glued together -- a collage of autism politics and theory.

Where is this all going? The play doesn’t give us a greater insight into the autistic experience than we can already derive from autistic art, or books and experience written by autistic people. It is a difficult task, this attempt of trying to relay autism theory against an interpretation of autistic experience. We get the sense too, as Atkins ties up the play in haste. In the end, the therapists and the ex-husband come to take Lucy back to her therapy, because “she needs to get better.” The mother doesn’t fight for her, but says to Lucy “I’m sorry.” There was a point when Lucy is on the floor reacting to all the dissension, the yelling between Vivian’s assistant who inappropriately intervenes with the ex husband and the therapist. When Julia said “this isn’t survival,” as Lucy wreathes upon the floor I wanted to say “oh yeah?” With the suggestion that the government wishes to employ a National Autism Surveillance Strategy in Canada, the idea of intervention and the invasion upon others telling our family and autistics how to live their lives feels all too real. So I felt her wreathing is survival. It is communication.

I can’t help thinking as I write this of Munch’s The Scream: shut up and leave us alone already. The rest of live the consequences of theories and speculations and interventions every day. We get calls every time some quack wishes to publicize their latest theory, or gasp with excitement when autism is on someone’s famous television show again. What people don’t know is that this is life as we know it. Stop peering at us and let us live it.

While the play wishes to suggest many things, namely how we relate to one another, there are too many themes and director Atkins bites off more than he can chew. He may leave our heads swirling, but eventually we don’t end up in any place different than where we already are – except that maybe we’ll receive yet one more telephone call: did you see Lucy lately?


Blogger kristina said...

I was hoping you'd see the play and post about it----I've only been able to read about it online and see photos. Your review confirms some of my thoughts on Lucy.

12:04 PM  
Blogger abfh said...

Ugh... it sounds like a 21st century version of a minstrel show in blackface.

11:11 AM  

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