The off-Broadway musical Newton’s Cradle, about a young man with autism and his family, could have been a thoroughly exhilarating experience instead of a near miss. What could be nearer and dearer to my heart than shining a spotlight on an autism family? As the mom of a young woman on the spectrum and author of My Picture Perfect Family – What Happens When One Twin Has Autism, I was thrilled at the prospect of watching another family’s autism saga unfold center stage. I had high hopes, especially after The Curious Incident of a Dog in the Night, an award-winning Broadway show that brought audiences inside the mind and heart of a young man with Asperger’s Syndrome (See “Beyond Autism and a Dead Dog on Broadway, 4/21/15).
However, Newton’s Cradle was a New York Musical Festival production that ran 5 days off Broadway with heavily discounted seats, not a Tony-winner still going strong and commanding full price tickets after several years on Broadway. Perhaps my disappointment was inevitable, but how could a passionate autism advocate mom not feel a frisson of hope and excitement as the curtain went up? At long last, the world is taking notice of the growing population of people on the spectrum, not just in textbooks and literature, but also in film and on stage. Any play or screenplay that takes creative risks exploring stereotypes around autism and attempts to evoke empathy and understanding in audiences earns my praise and gratitude.
I’m glad I saw Newton’s Cradle—despite its bland and uninspiring title. There were many poignant and beautiful moments during the play, which revolves around Evan Newton, who has autism. The audience watches Evan propose to his girlfriend at his family’s Alaskan cabin during Act 1. Much of the other action takes place in flashbacks; in one such flashback, we see Evan’s parents express opposite reactions to their son’s autism diagnosis. For me, those moments are painfully real, reminders of how my husband and I felt about our daughter’s various autism labels. In the play, Evan’s mother was devastated, but she was also determined to help her son reach his full potential. That’s EXACTLY how I felt about my daughter. For Evan’s father, Nate, the autism label provided relief and understanding: he believed that this diagnosis (and the limitations it implied) absolved him of guilt and responsibility for his son’s future. My husband’s “roll up your sleeves and get to work” response to the autism diagnosis was aligned with mine, yet his point of view has always been more measure and less optimistic (about everything). During the play, I found that the voices of both parents rang true. Also authentic was the voice of Evan’s neurotypical younger brother Michael, who felt neglected and invisible because he wasn’t “special”. After acting as Evan’s caretaker all his life, Michael is ambivalent about his older brother, loving him with fierce loyalty, yet feeling burdened, guilty, and embarrassed, much the same way my neurotypical son felt about his twin sister on the spectrum.
Some memorable, moving lyrics and touching metaphors gave the play its power. Evan’s repeated observations and keen interest in the patterns of nature were interesting and insightful. References to black birds (Evan) compared with white and gray gulls (neurotypicals) and Evan’s eventual marriage to his girlfriend, a “bluebird,” reminded the audience that people who look, act or think differently deserve equal love and respect. Andrea Jones-Sojola, with her lovely singing voice, was splendid as Evan’s mother, bringing to life an autism mom’s passionate and determined love.
Unfortunately, the portrayal of Evan—the central character—as a young man with autism felt artificial and contrived. Actor Heath Saunders tried his best with blank-faced expressions, flailing hands and stiff body movements to convince the audience that he was on the spectrum. Trying too hard was exactly his problem; each effort at body language and verbal expression seemed visibly forced by the actor, instead of emerging organically. If Heath Saunders, along with his mother and co-writer Kim Saunders, had done more research and spent enough time with people on the spectrum, they could have seen their mistakes. First and foremost, the character of Evan should have been played by an actor on the autistic spectrum. There are plenty of talented actors on the spectrum who could have played that role far more convincingly. If one of the goals of the play was to break stereotypes and offer a true experience of what it means to be “different,” why NOT give the disabled and (mostly unemployed) actors with autism a chance to show what it REALLY means to have social challenges? I’d like to see the theater (and film) industry cast a wider and more inclusive net when selecting actors. Today we see many minorities performing on NYC stages; roles are opening up to a much more diverse population than ever before. It is time to acknowledge the talents of actors with disabilities. Not only could an actor on the spectrum have played the role of Evan, there is no doubt in my mind that an actor with autism would have actually played the role better. Frankly, it’s a stretch for a neurotypical playwright, actor and songwriter to play a person on the spectrum under the best of circumstances.
When Evan describes his way of processing memories and feelings as trying to pick out individual “dots” floating in a disorganized sea of thought, I didn’t believe him (and neither should you). I have never heard anyone with autism describe their communication struggles remotely like bobbing for apples and never knowing which one will come up. In fact, anyone able to describe their conversation challenges in poetic metaphor and with such writerly detail and precision probably doesn’t have autism. I can’t even imagine the most brilliant minds on the spectrum, such as Temple Grandin and John Robison, describing their thinking processes with a dot sifting metaphor.
While the play made a valiant (and somewhat successful) attempt at depicting an autism family, I couldn’t help feeling like the writers randomly cobbled together all the stereotypical hallmark traits of autism including: an aversion to touch, wandering, body and facial rigidity, lack of affect in verbal expression, and stiff or unusual body movements. Somehow the playwrights didn’t know that higher functioning, verbally-articulate people on the spectrum—like Evan—do NOT habitually wander. Besides being inaccurate, the scenes where Evan wanders (and the rest of the family goes out looking for him) actually caused the play to wander and the dramatic action to detour and slow down. Further, since Evan’s mother lamented so much in Act 1 that her little boy had an aversion to touch, the writers MUST show the audience how that child transformed into a man capable of holding hands, kissing a woman and proposing to his girlfriend. Otherwise the key moment of healing is glossed over, leaving this audience member unable to believe in Evan’s profound shift toward connection—much as I wanted to.
Some rudimentary understanding of how Evan and his girlfriend Charlie met and fell in love (or whatever it is they feel) seems necessary. Is Charlie on the spectrum too, or does she have another disability? If not, why is she attracted to Evan? Clearly, she appreciates Evan in ways his father never will. Charlie becomes interesting and emotionally powerful when she sticks with Evan, even though his dad tells her Evan will never be able to meet her needs. (He wins the disloyal dad prize, in my opinion). Too bad we didn’t get to know Charlie better. I liked her more than Evan, because she rang true. Thank God for the neurotypical people who can appreciate and love partners and friends on the spectrum.
For Newton’s Cradle to have the emotional power (and success) of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night, the play would need to be redrafted so the audience believes in the main character. The playbill ad for Newton’s Cradle offers the slogan “because everyone is born with special needs,” but that phrase is meaningless without a believable story about a young man on the spectrum who reaches out to win the audience’s hearts. In other words, I wanted to cheer for an Evan who transcended autism stereotypes and became a special person we can love. How would choosing an actor on the spectrum have changed this play? Not only would the main character have seemed more authentic on stage, but the actor with autism could have offered feedback from a perspective not available to anyone else on set. I’d love to see a more authentic Newton’s Cradle that lived up to its potential as art while demonstrating that sometimes “different” is truly special.
In the meantime, I’m glad to see theater exploring issues surrounding autism. Newton’s Cradle certainly offers a glimpse into the life of an autism family. Hopefully, this is just the beginning of more and better. In that spirit, I’m asking directors and casting agents to please, please consider hiring actors on the spectrum to play roles where they can shine and also lift the level of the entire performance. Just as the writers of Newton’s Cradle point out, people with autism can have special talents, and they deserve the opportunity to share them with the world.