Detroit Rep’s ‘Life On The Moon’ explores challenges of life with a high-needs loved one
By Bridgette Redman
DETROIT, MI–It’s not unusual to crave being the protagonist of one’s own story, the leading man or woman of a life’s biopic, the star player in a story of success and love. It doesn’t matter that life’s stages have a far greater demand for supporting characters and bit actors.
In Anna Tatelman’s Life on the Moon, getting its world professional debut at Detroit Repertory Theatre from Nov. 18 to Dec. 18, Spencer, played by Dan Johnson, has returned home for the holidays having left to join the Army. His family is dominated by the intense needs and constant presence of Piper (played by Kelly Eubank), a young woman whose autism dictates the rhythm and concerns of everyone else in the house.
Tatelman doesn’t shy away from portraying the challenges faced by a person with disability and those who live with her. This is not a sappy Hallmark story filled with tired and meaningless sentiment. She illuminates the tensions it causes in relationships—whether between spouses, siblings or parents and child. The characters she creates are all sympathetic—the antagonist in this story is not an individual, but the circumstances, the frailty of relationships and the difficulty of growth.
While there are many well-known stories in this genre—“Rain Man,” “Forrest Gump” and “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”—there is something more intimate and less mythic about Life on the Moon. Yes, Piper has an ability to parrot television shows and movies, but she is very human and not a savant. The play isn’t about her having some amazing abilities that make others feel better because she gets this “special” skill. Rather, Tatelman digs deep into what Piper needs to survive, to navigate safely through a treacherous world that her brain perceives in different ways from those around her. She also very honestly portrays what that means for the others in the family and the ways in which their needs often get set aside for Piper’s.
Eubank impressively portrays the young woman, a character in constant motion who rides a roller coaster of anxiety and comforting repetition. While she has behaviors that might be described as child-like, she never acts like a child. She finds that sweet spot of being an adult whose disability keeps her from behaving in ways that would be considered mature.
It’s clear that Eubank has done her research, that she has worked hard at embodying the characteristics that can accompany autism. Whether it is avoiding eye contact, tensing at nearness or flapping her hands when her emotions climb, Eubank is thoroughly consistent in a way that constantly raises the stakes of the story.
Her brother, while always accommodating his sister and falling into a lifetime of habits formed to keep the peace, is fundamentally different and Johnson leans into that. He is laid back and displays Spencer’s high degrees of socio-emotional intelligence. Johnson is able to show the deep love that Spencer has for his sisters and parents while also letting his weariness and own personal tragedies and challenges peek through. He balances the desire to have a life story where he is centered with his clear love and devotion to his sister.
Director Leah Smith carefully choreographs the rise and fall of emotions. There are times when people speak over each other, and multiple conversations are taking place at the same time. Smith uses these scenes effectively to help the audience empathize with the tensions experienced by the family. She makes strong use of the large stage, sometimes filling it, other times bringing the focus down to a small, intimate area that explodes outward in scenes of crisis.
The parents, Helen (Aimee K. Bryant) and Bruce (Peter Knox), are caught in arguments that sometimes feel a bit dated. They are the sort of arguments parents of special needs children would have when the child was younger than what Piper is. That they still have not resolved these issues of what is best for Piper and that the disagreements flame as hot as they do seems the one inauthentic part of the script. It is an important element to explore and Tatelman does that well. It just doesn’t feel like the right fit at their stage of life.
That said, both Bryant and Knox do an excellent job of showing how you can love and worry about two very different children while maintaining a marital relationship. Bryant displays acute intelligence and a deep understanding of both her children, even while leaning toward keeping the peace rather than constantly risking Piper’s blow ups. Knox, on the other hand, finds the gentle pragmatism in the part of Bruce, the commitment to helping his daughter grow as much as she is capable of.
The production team clearly bought into Smith’s vision for the show, creating together a story set in the Christmas holidays of 2013. Harry Wetzel’s set provided a glimpse into a realistic home while giving it the room it needed for the show’s demands.
No one is listed in the program for props, which is a shame because the show is teeming with props that are critical to the story, whether it is the complex toys that Piper plays with, kitchen and dining supplies, the photographs, the medals or the magazines that play an important role in later scenes. All of them further the story in important ways.
Burr Huntington designs sound that includes careful planning of levels so that such things as the television playing in the background threatens the family’s fragile peace without overwhelming the audience’s ability to understand what is happening.
Jen Pan and Joe Wright share the role of fight choreographer. They have a challenging job which they do extremely well—making sure the “fights” are designed to accommodate the specific motions and dictates of Piper’s version of autism.
While much of the story focuses on Piper and her needs, it is very much a story about her family and their struggles to figure out life around Piper. Must she always be the lead character? Are they allowed to have their own needs and what happens when those needs cause Piper distress?
Most importantly, Tatelman never loses sight of the intense love this family has for each other, even if they don’t always know how to express it.
Many decades ago, my father was reprimanded by readers for a newspaper column he wrote in which he talked about the burden of raising a high-needs child. He followed it up with a column repeating that yes, it is a burden, but it never occurred to him that you couldn’t love a burden.
It is something that Tatelman clearly understands and invites the audience to explore in Life on the Moon.