Understanding loss can be a tricky business for children, and especially so for those with disabilities. The Kennedy Center’s poignant production of Mockingbird explores an autistic girl’s emotional, unique journey through grief and healing in the wake of unspeakable tragedy. Mockingbird, adapted from the award-winning young adult novel by Kathryn Erskine, stands out from the sometimes-fluffy realm of family theater with a complex emotional journey that should resonate with parents and children alike.
As the play begins, we meet our outspoken narrator Caitlin, who is 11 years old and on the autism spectrum. Caitlin has no verbal filter and is easily unsettled and obsessed by minute issues that others simply ignore. Previously, her older brother Devon had guided her through the complexities of school, home, and life in general. However, after a tragic day, Caitlin must suddenly learn to deal with small questions like playground manners and weighty issues of life and death on her own.
Dylan Silver immerses herself in the difficult role, embracing a blunt tone, jarring emotional swings, and challenging physical tics to drive home the vision of a young girl trying to understand her new world through the prism of her disorder. Silver’s performance can sometimes be tough to watch, as she treads a thin line between respectful homage and overdone caricature. That’s the delicate challenge of playing a character with a developmental disorder: getting close enough to reality without offending the real community.
The performance was commissioned by VSA, a respected arts and disability organization, in coordination with Kennedy Center. Ultimately, no matter the perception of the acting, its provenance should insulate it against any complaints of insensitivity from the adults in the room. Meanwhile, children will likely enjoy and relate to Caitlin’s matter of fact opinions and lack of tact in school and at home.
Caitlin’s story unfolds in a brisk sequence of journal-entry monologues – catnip for the social media generation – and revolving group scenes. Misha Kachman’s bright, expansive set allows the action to swirl back and forth from school to home to inside Caitlin’s mind with ease. Meanwhile, Lauren Joy’s innovative projections allow the audience to see the world through Caitlin’s eyes as she grapples with each new challenge.
Closes Feb 1, 2015
The Kennedy Center
2700 F Street, NW
1 hour, 10 minutes
Saturdays and Sundays
Tickets or call 202-467-4600
At home, Maboud Ebrahimzadeh brings Caitlin’s Dad to life with a spirit of quiet generosity. Ebrahimzadeh explains, comforts, cheers, and supports Caitlin even as he suffers the loss of his son in silence. His knack for wringing compelling parenting moments from young-adult novel dialogue is a credit to his acting chops and a steadying force within the ping-pong scene progression.
At school, guidance counselor Mrs. Brook (Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey), exudes patience and warmth as she introduces Caitlin to empathy, sharing, friendship, and other concepts that frustrate and mystify the young girl. Fernandez-Coffey, a Woolly Mammoth company member and Tisch graduate, invests her full capacity into even the most very basic exchanges, almost like Meryl Streep bringing her “A game” to an ABC Family movie.
Aaron Bliden deserves special mention for his effusive performance as Michael, a 1st grader who becomes Caitlin’s first friend through shared grief love for everyday discovery. Bliden draws genuine laughs with his childlike enthusiasm and spot-on impression of a mumbling 7-year old.
Director Tracy Callahan has put together a well-rounded production, driven by a committed cast and visuals that pop off the stage. Despite some ham-handed messages, Mockingbird provides an entertaining jolt of theater for kids and parents alike, as well as accessible jumping off point for families to explore tough topics like bullying, mental disorders, and loss.
Mockingbird by Julie Jensen . from the book by Kathryn Erskine . Directed by Tracy Callahan . Featuring Maboud Ebrahimzadeh, Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey, Susan Lynskey, Dylan Silver, Aaron Bliden, Rex Daugherty, Thony Mena, Tia Shearer and Kathryn Tkel . Produced by Kennedy Center Family Theater and VSA . Reviewed by Ben Demers.