Dallas — The layers of grief, guilt, love and complete exhaustion found in Jessica Cavanagh’s Self Injurious Behavior will feel all too familiar to some families who are raising children with disabilities. But there’s funny stuff here, and honesty. And with the playwright herself onstage portraying (as she is in real life) the mother of a son on the autism spectrum, a versatile and gutsy cast directed by Marianne Galloway honors every part of Cavanagh’s truth-telling, from shattering low points to high comedy.
In her famous essay “Welcome to Holland,” longtime Sesame Street writer Emily Perl Kingsley, the mother of a son with Down syndrome, says the experience of having a child with disabilities is something like planning “a fabulous vacation in Italy”—but landing in Holland instead. Not a bad place, but different. You wanted to go to Italy! Most of your friends are there, having a wonderful time. You’re confused and disappointed, but you adapt, buying new guide books and learning a new language. You meet great people you never would have met in Italy. And you come to see and value the joys and beauties of this unexpected country: tulips, windmills, Rembrandts.
But that metaphor doesn’t cover every situation—and the knocked-sideways living room where mom Summer (Cavanagh) and her 11-year-old son Benjamin (Jude Segrest) are trying to survive the night looks nothing like Italy or Holland.
This is Berlin after the bombings. This is Gaza with rocks flying. This is a battle zone.
And we, the stunned audience of the first 15 minutes of this searing and heartfelt workshop production in Theatre Three’s downstairs Theatre Too space, sit with eyes wide and think: There are moms and dads doing this right now, in homes all over the world—fighting to keep a child from self-injury, fending off blows, turning on videos, trying a favorite song, holding on tight…anything that might buy a moment of calm or connection or sleep.
Then, just as we’re sure they (and we) can’t take any more, the play makes a break for it, whisking us away to a goofy, hippie-dippie Ren Faire weekend in the woods. Huzzah! It’s the perfect change of scenery for Summer (Jeffrey Schmidt’s set design, colorful tents among leafy trees, cheers us right away), a comic escape contrived by her loving sisters and their friends—in hopes she can shake free, even for a few days, of her gnawing sadness about Benjamin.
Even there, of course, Summer isn’t free. Her mind (and the play’s time-scattered scenes) roams obsessively among the events of her past years as a young wife and mother. We see her husband Jake (Ian Ferguson in a quietly complex performance) as a traveling singer, cold to her struggles at home—and as the excited young father making plans for the baby. We see them, a couple broken in half, in conflict over Ben’s future. We watch happy moments with mother and son, too—jokes and catchphrases flying between them. Ben loves the Peter Pan story: “Second star on the right!” he calls to Summer. “And straight on ‘til morning!” she answers.
Each scene is part of Summer’s internal struggle to accept that Benjamin needs more than she can give— though she’s given everything. Her sisters Sage and Harmony (a quirky and tender Jennifer Kuenzer and gently empathetic Danielle Pickard) offer hugs, weed, and the kind of clear-eyed commentary you only take from your sibs.
Ferguson, a talented singer and musician, also plays a kilt-wearing Ren Faire guy, attractive and accepting (and quite delighted to be Rebound Guy). Madison Calhoun is lively as a belly-dancing wood nymph, and annoyingly chirpy as Jake’s super-organized new girl; and Desiree Fultz inhabits two extremely different personae as the head of a home for special-needs kids and the sisters’ blustery friend Gina, who doesn’t know her descriptions of her “perfect kid” make Summer crazy.
It’s a credit to both Cavanagh’s script and the cast’s talents that we come to feel empathy even with characters who first seem cool and self-interested. Even Jake, she shows us, was once a young father-to-be without a clue of how fragile our dreams of parenthood can be. Even Jake can be a source of sensible advice—when Summer’s utter devotion comes up against the reality of Benjamin’s needs. The “self injurious behavior” isn’t just Benjamin’s—it’s hers, too.
Jake Nice’s sound choices—from city sirens to evocative songs—add tremendously to the fluid, emotional atmosphere. And the inclusion of “conflict choreographer” Lydia Mackay says a lot about how challenging it was to create the visceral reality of the opening scene. And Cavanagh and Segrest (a sixth-grader with training from Dallas Children’s Theater) are amazing—not only in that crucial part of the play, but throughout. There is no way we can un-know that this is Cavanagh’s life we’re seeing onstage—but that only adds to how deeply we are drawn into the story.
“I don’t know how to just ‘be’ without him,” says Summer.
But we know, though she may not, that she’s starting to find her way…and we’re glad for her.