nytheatre.com review by Josh Sherman
October 29, 2007
What happens when a misanthropic anthropologist is thrust into instant motherhood by her estranged teenage daughter? And what happens to them both as a result of her daughter's crippling autism? Lucy, the fascinating new play by Damien Atkins, takes us on a journey into the minds of both mother and daughter in this complicated and thoughtful piece. Co-commissioned by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and Ensemble Studio Theatre, Lucy is a work that challenges common perceptions and definitions of disabilities, both from scientific and social perspectives. The director, William Carden, successfully frames the debate within Lucy to make you leave the theatre questioning conventional wisdom about the under-reported, debilitating condition that afflicts the autistic.
The flaky, people-hating Vivian is the anthropologist who does not have custody of her autistic daughter Lucy, and is very satisfied not to. But her ex-husband Gavin has been caring for Lucy for 13 years, and coaxes the prickly Vivian into taking care of Lucy for a year back in Manhattan. My qualm with Act One of Lucy was that it plods along in a fairly predictable fashion—Vivian struggles with the twin plot threads of working on a follow-up to a wildly successful anthropology book and learning to communicate with an autistic child. What I couldn't know is that all of Atkins' exposition was merely a tremendous setup.
Act Two of Lucy is an intellectual and emotional knockout, as Vivian comes to wild conclusions about herself, her daughter's disease, the scientific community, and the theory of evolution itself. Is she justifying her misanthropic behavior by seeing things through her daughter's eyes? Has Vivian gone mad, or is it the rest of society that has yet to catch up with an intellectual breakthrough? Atkins's play structure is like that of an old wooden roller coaster that takes all of Act One to climb, and then freefalls through the twists and turns of Act Two, leaving you dizzy with too many questions when you exit the ride.
The actors are as solid as solid can be. Lucy DeVito, as the title character, never comes across as cartoonish as the autistic Lucy, and in her moments when we see inside Lucy's head, she shows strength and gravitas. For an actress in her early 20s, there's never a doubt that she embodies a young teenager—DeVito has a tremendous stage future if she wants it. Lisa Emery (Vivian) is one of the most reliable and professional stage actresses working, and there are very very few who could successfully walk the tightrope of playing "genius or crazy?" Emery has all the heavy emotional lifting of the play and she carries the piece forward. She's also entirely convincing as a misanthrope. The supporting work of Scott Sowers (as Gavin), Keira Naughton (as Vivian's dedicated assistant Julia), and Christopher Duva (as Lucy's specialist Morris) provides a terrific foundation for the piece as well.
E.S.T. and the Sloan Foundation have found a terrific playwright, cast, and play to shine a brighter light on autism. Kudos to Atkins for not being afraid to ask big questions about scientific thought—and challenging an audience to reframe their own thoughts and question prevailing wisdom.