New York — Parents can be haunted by the choices they make for their children. It can be a cycle of fear, guilt, and self-recrimination. Did I do my best? Did I screw my kid up? Did I hurt them?
In Jessica Cavanagh’s play Self-Injurious Behavior, these worries are a nagging constant for a mother largely raising an autistic child alone. The play had a workshop in 2018 at Theatre Three in Dallas, and makes its off-Broadway premiere at the 30th Street Theatre, part of Urban Stages. Directed by Marianne Galloway and produced by Cavanagh and Dallas-based Bren Rapp under Alamo Manhattan Productions, the production runs through May 5.
Loosely based on her own life experience, Cavanagh writes and stars in this play about Summer, who makes the painful choice of putting her son in a residential school program. It’s a challenging topic to dramatize because it can easily slide into the melodramatic or maudlin. But Cavanagh smartly balances shattering episodes of Summer caring for 11-year-old Benjamin (Jude Segrest) and fights with her ex-husband Jake (Ian Ferguson) with Summer’s attempt to distract herself from her despair with a weekend at a Renaissance Faire with her sisters Sage (Jennifer Kuenzer) and Harmony (Danielle Pickard).
It’s a glorious setting for adult hedonism and makes for playful interaction with the incongruous—sweeping Renaissance gowns (costumes by Ryan Schaap), kilts, vape pens, and pudding cups. And it’s not a world often depicted on stage.
The change of scenery (scenic design by Clare Floyd DeVries) allows Summer’s guilt, sadness, and grief to spill out between getting high, letting go, and most importantly spending time with her sisters who have been supportive but not nearby to witness all that’s happened to her.
This is the play and the production’s strength. The three actors offer a warm rapport between the siblings. Their gentle ribbing brings comedy and lightness to the narrative while Summer’s agony over her choice to leave Benjamin hangs in the background.
The sisters still have issues to work out amongst themselves since their mother’s death and this provides a moment to do that as well, though those conflicts are less clearly defined.
We get a picture of what Summer experiences every day with Benjamin—screaming, sleeplessness, biting, and violent outbursts towards himself and Summer. It goes a bit too far with a heavy-handed voiceover plea in Benjamin’s voice that taunts Summer throughout: “Don’t give up on me, Mommy.” It’s clear without this pleading, how troubled she is by her decision to put him in a residential program. The audio whimpering is overkill.
Structurally the play jumps around with flashbacks to earlier in her marriage. The progression back in time does not illuminate much—we can surmise much of what gets “revealed” in those scenes. In addition, the time shifts are not sharply delineated in the production since they are still using the Ren Faire set and there is some actor-doubling in certain roles.
Kuenzer as the wilder sister gives us all permission to laugh and helps break the tension of the play established early on by scenes of Summer struggling. Pickard as the uptight sister is an effective “straight man” to Summer and Sage teasing her. Cavanagh has the difficult job of playing devastated for a good portion of the story. But it’s nice to see her expand her repertoire later when Summer, drunk and high, gets to have a little fun and leans into Ren Faire life. Ferguson is remote as the underwritten Jake but he doubles as a Ren Faire faux-Scotsman on the prowl, which he excels at.
Cavanagh attempts to address a lot between parenting an autistic child, tension with how other parents judge you, depression, navigating divorce and new step-parents, and grief and loss. There’s no way to really do justice to all these. But more often than not we feel Summer’s pain—the challenge of doing your best for your child and trying not to damage and lose yourself completely in the process.
» The run of Self-Injurious Behavior coincides with National Autism Awareness Month; ticket sales benefit select autism charities.
» Nicole Serratore is an attorney and freelance arts journalist and critic in New York City who has written for Variety, The Stage, New York Times, Village Voice, American Theatre magazine, and TDF Stages. She is the Managing Editor of Exeunt NYC, a long-form theater criticism website. She is a member of American Theatre Critics Association, Drama Desk, and the Outer Critics Circle.