KPBS AIRDATE: September 10, 1997
To cap off its summer season, the Old Globe has scheduled an intense double-header. One is a classic tragedy, the other a true-to-life, modern-day tragedy. In “Othello,” a villainous malcontent plots and premeditates the demise of a relationship and the downfall of a powerful man. In “Miracles,” a well-meaning teacher unwittingly causes harm to an autistic child and her hope-filled father. In both instances, unquestioned, uncritical belief causes destruction of self and others.
“Miracles” was written by former San Diegan Frank Higgins, after he saw a TV exposé of the controversial teaching technique called Facilitated Communication, a procedure developed in Australia about 20 years ago, brought to this country and adopted nationwide with amazing speed — untested and unchallenged — because it provided enormous hope to thousands of families, who, for the first time, saw their severely neurologically impaired children able to communicate. However, this communication only happened in the presence of one trainer who provided support of the autistic child’s hand over a waiting keyboard. Some people called it Ouija Board therapy; some called it a miracle.
Higgins’ play centers on a 17- year old autistic girl, her Facilitator, and her skeptical father. Without being didactic, Higgins presents all the facts: that many of these autistics never even looked at the keyboards as they typed with one finger. That, when facilitator and child were shown different pictures, 100% of the time, the typed word corresponded to the image shown to the facilitator. That many children accused their parents of heinous acts — through facilitators who, it was later found, had their own hidden secrets of childhood abuse. But Higgins doesn’t totally stack the deck. He leaves unresolved the possibility of savant behavior in this girl.
He’s not trying to advocate; he’s created a gripping theatricalization of a startling situation. And director Benny Sato Ambush keeps the dramatic tension high.
Having worked with autistics, I can say with confidence that Kim Murphy does an outstanding job of showing the sometimes uncontrolled, sometimes frightening behaviors of these kids. But Higgins goes further. He tries to imagine what the girl may be thinking, or what her father or teacher fantasize that she’s thinking, if she is thinking at all. I must confess, I’ve never looked at the bizarre behaviors of an autistic child without wondering, ‘What’s going on inside your head?’
As the confused, beleaguered father, John Getz is natural and convincing. Only Stephanie Dunnam is working too hard, pushing and projecting too much, making a driven, perhaps obsessive teacher less than fully credible. Belief in miracles requires faith, and that may also be true of the audience. Whatever your belief, you won’t walk away from this one undisturbed.
Likewise the Globe production of “Othello,” but for other reasons. Not the strongest or most intricate of the Bard’s tragedies, “Othello” nonetheless contains some of his most magical language, and a universal theme — that “green-eyed monster,” Jealousy. Jack O’Brien’s production seems to underscore the weaknesses of the play: its repetitiveness, its slow movement toward an inexorable conclusion, its unitary plotline. His production is true to the text, but in a literal and unsubtle way. Pauses, thunder, and lightning hammer home the many ironic references to the villainous Iago’s seeming ‘honesty.’ The characters appear one-dimensional, not complex or enigmatic. The rich words are often swallowed, the regional American accents peek through. As the Moor, Tyrees Allen looks regal, but his emotions are too out of control for an accomplished warrior and general. And Richard Easton’s Iago, taking glee in his plots and plans, struts through his scenes like an actor enjoying his many ruses and guises. Only Christina Haag’s Desdemona is consistent and credible, in this earnest but uneven production. There were no new insights here for me, but if you’ve never checked this one off your Shakespeare must-see list, now’s your chance.
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1997 Patté Productions Inc.