A strange thing happens – or, rather, doesn’t happen – when Scott Miller makes his first appearance onstage as autistic Jake Jessop in “Spelling 2-5-5.”
Miller bobs his head, blinks his eyes furiously, reads a comic book aloud with unusual zest, spews unnecessary facts in machine-gun bursts (“2,760 seconds until the bell!”) and cringes when anyone speaks too loudly or gets too close.
Yet not a soul in the Tarradiddle Players’ audience giggled Saturday afternoon.
No one had prepared them for the message of Jennifer Overton’s drama about 10-year-old Jake and his 12-year-old, nonautistic brother Simon. Even the youngest playgoer, who might naturally have laughed at behavior most of us would find odd, seemed to know intuitively that “special” didn’t equate to “funny.”
That’s one point of Overton’s play, but not the main one.
Her hourlong drama is less about how Jake copes with the world than the way the world copes with Jake – particularly Simon (Stephen Seay), who justly feels their mom (briskly likeable Tanya McClellan) doesn’t give Simon enough credit for his accomplishments.
One of those is the ability to spell. Simon plans to use an audition for a reality TV show, “So You Think You Can Spell,” to get the world to notice him. Then he learns that Jake also has extraordinary spelling skills, but only if he uses numbers instead of words.
Designer Tim Parati has cleverly laid out the set in vertical panels, as if it took place in one of Jake’s beloved comic books. Director Dennis Delamar balances that look by stressing realism in the performances where the script allows. (Leslie Ann Giles has a series of funny, intentionally stereotypical cameos as bad spellers.)
The leads balance an outgoing performance and a much quieter one. Miller does a remarkable job of capturing Jake’s anxieties while reminding us he’s more than the sum of his quirks. Seay holds himself in check, whether Simon is resentful or joyful, except when the TV producer asks him to shriek and dance; you can tell he spends his life flying under mom’s emotional radar.
Overton shows they all have something to learn. Jake must learn to adapt to a rough world. Simon must learn his responsibilities in this house can never diminish. And their mother must learn it’s not enough to love kids equally; she has to show that love.
The faces of the young audience made me think they understood.