Scared of Sarah

Scared of Sarah, Laura Brienza's entry in the 2011 FringeNYC Festival, is a compelling and heartfelt new play on a subject—autism—that doesn't get talked about much in the theatre. Under the direction of Reginald L. Douglas, a company of three excellent actors brings Brienza's story to life vividly and movingly. It's highly recommended Fringe-fare; and I'll certainly be eager to see what Brienza comes up with in the future.

The play takes place in the New York City apartment of Lily and Sam. They're in their mid-20s, an upwardly-mobile couple like so many others in the Big Apple: he's left a job he hated in finance to go full-time to Columbia University Law School, while she's a rising star at her job at the National Hockey League.

When we meet them, though, Lily and Sam are in crisis. She has just learned that they're going to have a baby, and Sam is freaking out. They owe more than a hundred thousand dollars, he says. How will they support a baby? And how can they raise a baby in Manhattan? They'll have to move to the suburbs. On and on he rants, stuck in a panic that's scary and rings entirely true.

But then the couple begins to face an even graver but all-too-real possibility: what if their unborn child turns out to be like Lily's older sister, Sarah? Sarah is autistic—not so far on the scale that she is unable to care for herself, but still very difficult to handle and know, processing the universe in such a different and seemingly unfathomable way. Lily and Sarah's mother left them when they were young. Lily's fears about herself make too much sense: what, she says, if our child can't stand to be held or touched, the way Sarah was? What if I don't love my own child?

Brienza follows the three characters as they struggle to cope with these issues during Lily's pregnancy. All are beautifully drawn and performed. Carolyn Daucher explores Lily's conflicted nature with care, showing us many sides of this smart, loving, troubled young woman. Nate Grams is splendidly empathetic and likable as Sam, a young man who is being forced to grow up quickly in unexpected ways. And Brenna Palughi's Sarah is as remote and lost in her own perception of the world as we understand the autistic to be; her performance never falls into caricature but remains grounded in the reality of her character.

Brienza is a young playwright, and while she has created remarkably compelling and sympathetic characters, some of the play's plotting is in broader strokes than it probably needs to be. Likewise, Douglas's staging is perhaps too caught up in details to be fully successful at the festival level: the set (which is uncredited) sports what appears to be a working refrigerator, stove, and microwave, all of which could probably be dispensed with to keep things simpler.

But the relationships at the heart of the play are finally what matter in Scared of Sarah, and all concerned bring those to the audience with grace and insight. What I love most about this piece is that all of its characters acquire maturity and self-knowledge during the course of the story, and that they do so without losing sight of what's important in their lives or forgetting how much they care for one another. There is much that's fundamental in human nature that is revealed in Scared of Sarah, and for that—and for showing audiences what it might be like to have a loved one who is autistic—I am very grateful to have seen it.