Dramatic Rep gets Nervous, dark

Cracking a Smile
By MEGAN GRUMBLING  |  March 15, 2012

FACING DIFFICULTIES Peering inside parents’ darkest thoughts.

The parents of children with severe disabilities have an almost incalculably different experience than other parents. Such disabilities affect not only family life's daily rhythms, but also its long-term cycle: These parents will never release their kids into college, careers, and the management of their own lives. These parents' sacrifices, it seems, are manifold. How do they hold up under the strain? Do they all hold up? Could any of us? These questions are at the heart of John Belluso's provocative, morally terrifying A Nervous Smile, on stage in an exquisitely acted production of the Dramatic Repertory Company, at Portland Stage Company's Studio Theater, under the direction of Whitney Smith.

Eileen (Laura Graham), Brian (Paul Drinan), and Nic (Molly W. Bryant Roberts) are all parents intimate with the trials of having a very disabled child. From a material standpoint, all three, Upper West Side Manhattanites, are reasonably well-prepared to handle the extra need: Eileen and Brian live off Eileen's family wealth, and their teenage daughter Emily has a hired helper, Blanka (Jackie Oliveri), a Russian Jew; as well as top-of-the-line "voice boards" to help her "speak." Nic is divorced from an unsupportive ex, but as a lawyer she can nonetheless afford software for basic communication with her son. The parents have spent years together in a support group; in fact, we first encounter them as they're just returning from another child's funeral back to Brian and Eileen's plush home.

But they've stopped on the way for drinks, and despite some initial buzzed merriment, the effects quickly reveal tensions: Eileen and Brian bicker about the funeral; with melodious bitchery Eileen rags on Nic for referring to her son's "babysitter," rather than "personal assistant." For some time now, Eileen has been popping Vicodin with her lattes. Brian can scarcely stand the sound of his wife's voice and, we learn in short enough order, has been having an affair with Nic. The cracks in the foundations are showing.

The issues of disabilities are a common theme in the work of Belluso, who himself suffered from a bone disease, used a wheelchair from his early teens, and died in 2006 at the age of 36. Known as a champion of the disabled, his script looks dead straight into the most horrifying, emotionally crippling responses a parent might have to his or her child, and counts all of them as human. His writing is also strikingly, sometimes shockingly rich in imagery — Eileen muses that her daughter's lips and tongue look like "a mollusk;" Nic builds to a harrowing emotional pitch as she describes the scene of her son having pushed over her dinner preparations, with "thick shards of glass sticking out of bloody meat."

A Nervous Smile also ponders a wealth of ideas around the technology, morality, and economics surrounding disability. Blanka talks to Nic about Dostoevsky, wonders if before voice boards there were Gertrude Steins and Walt Whitmans unable to communicate, and worries that "sometimes technology moves so fast that morality cannot keep up." Between the mothers, there is tension over which child is the more severely disabled, as well as over the quality of care each income is able to provide.

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