"Asperger’s syndrome is incredibly subtle, treading the thin boundary between quirky personality and psychological disorder,” writes playwright and Princeto senior Andrea Grody in the program notes for her new musical “Strange Faces,” playing through Saturday, April 9 at the Matthews Acting Studio at the Lewis Center for the Arts.
Grody wrote the book, lyrics, and music for this original musical production about families dealing with Asperger’s syndrome. Her research into Asperger’s and the writing and directing of “Strange Faces” serve as Grody’s senior thesis requirements for her major in the department of music and her certificate in theater from the Lewis Center for the Arts. Grody is looking to begin a career directing Broadway musicals. On the basis of what she accomplished with “Strange Faces,” it would be no surprise to begin reading about her quite soon in the entertainment trade publications.
In a press statement Grody said that knowing someone diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a condition related to autism characterized by significant difficulties with social interactions, inspired her to write “Strange Faces.” “Asperger’s has only recently been accepted and recognized in the United States, and most people drastically misunderstand it. Now is the time to write a musical that educates audiences on Asperger’s and helps them relate to it emotionally.”
The musical deals with three families who have no relation with one another — but what they do have in common is one family member suffering from Asperger’s syndrome. The play moves from one character to another, following the course of each individual family member with Asperger’s. The families’ stories do not overlap but each is treated as a single unit.
The play opens with the story of Jamie (Matt Prast), whose mother, Jill (Miyuki Miyagi), and father, Tom (Tadesh Inagaki), are apparently more proactive than many other parents. We see Jamie improving through the course of the play, but the roughest moment comes when he’s about to go out into the world on his own. His parents have been working to make it possible for him to be independent, but when the moment actually arrives his mother is terrified.
Peter (Sean Drohan), the second Asperger’s sufferer, has immersed himself in Harry Potter and can talk endlessly about every detail in both the books and the movies, often to the annoyance of many of those within earshot, but he does interacts with his slightly older sister, Rachel (Holly Linneman). When he goes off on his own for what is presumably the first time, he manages to kiss Rachel goodbye (also possibly for the first time), a sign of positive social interaction. And when Peter calls from a party (another social scenario) she is very proud of him.
Laura (Carolyn Vasko) is the third character with Asperger’s. After her parents divorce, her twin brother, Harrison (Brad Wilson), seems to be her only caretaker. They are very close, and his devoted attention has meant a great deal to her. Unfortunately, it has also been a strain, so that he ends up totally exhausted and begging for help.
“Strange Faces” adopts interesting variations in the use of its six-piece orchestra. At the beginning of the play the orchestra (placed out of view in the balcony) only accompanies those on the higher level of the stage; those at the bottom sing with piano alone. As the play progresses, that distinction blurs. The orchestra, led by Meg Zervoulis, who serves as music director and also plays piano, includes violin, cello, bass, reeds, and percussion.
The set, designed by Jeremy Doucette, is extremely simple but at the same time, very clever. A variety of platforms of different sizes, placed at minimally different levels, creates an attractive geometric appearance that makes it easier to represent a variety of different places without the need for elaborate props and scenery. The costume designer is Kerry Brodie, and the lighting designer is Amanda Bestor-Siegal (both juniors). The props are the work of Christina Henricks, and the choreography is by Christina Campodonico (both sophomores).
It seems strange (no pun intended) to be recommending as entertainment a play about a very serious condition that, although it can be better dealt with than it could not so many years ago, is still not totally understood. But Grody seems to have brought off this unlikely result, and it is to be hoped that the audiences for the final weekend (Thursday through Saturday, April 7 to 9) will strain the capacity of the Matthews Acting Studio.
“Strange Faces,” Thursday through Saturday, April 7 to 9, Marie and Edward Matthews ’53 Acting Studio, the Lewis Center for the Arts, 185 Nassau Street. $12; $10 for students and seniors. 609-258-9220.