by Matthew Falduto
Iowa City – Yesterday, April 2, 2016, was Autism Awareness Day. It was therefore entirely appropriate that my wife and I attended Dancing Lessons at Riverside Theatre, a play that provides us with a look into the life of an autistic man. Mark St. Germain’s short and insightful play chronicles the relationship of Ever, a professor who has been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, and Senga, a professional dancer who is neurotypical. Sam Osheroff, who is also the new Artistic Director of Riverside, plays Ever and Heather Chrisler plays Senga. It’s a witty, romantic story about two people coming to understand one another and Riverside’s production is excellent.
Shortly before the play begins, Senga has suffered a major injury to her knee, which could mean she will never dance again. Her reaction to this news is to wallow in self pity, hiding in her New York apartment from friends and the aunt who raised her. Enter her neighbor, Ever, who wants to pay her over $2000 for a one hour dancing lesson so he’s prepared for a work related social event.
Osheroff is simply fantastic as Ever. His physical work is perfect, from his awkwardly stiff body posture to his spread fingered hands. The diction he chooses for Ever is also strong, with a staccato feel that emphasizes the abruptness of Ever’s way of communicating. Finally, recognizing that facial expression is not something that is natural for many autistics, he assumes a neutrally expressive face for much of the play. Through all of these wise choices, Osheroff completely transforms into Ever. It’s a marvelous testament to Osheroff’s skills and natural talent.
Chrisler is also delightful as the damaged dancer, Senga. I don’t know if this was a conscious choice on the part of director Angie Toomsen (and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it were), but Chrisler’s body posture is most often relaxed and her movements smooth, providing a powerful contrast to Ever’s stiffness. Chrisler often has to carry the emotions of the scenes as Ever is challenged when it comes to expressing emotions. She does that effortlessly.
The most powerful scene is the one where Senga helps Ever overcome his natural inclination to eschew the touch of another person. Ever hates handshakes and hugs, but he knows he needs to find a way to accept another human being’s touch. In the able hands of director Toomsen, Osheroff and Chrisler create a truly beautiful and intimate moment on stage.
The script has a wonderful slow burn as these two very different characters gradually grow closer and find a deeper understanding of each other. It is also rife with humor and Christler and Osheroff display excellent comic timing throughout the play. The ending feels real and true, well-earned and believable. I left the play a little wiser having been exposed to this story and that feels like a gift.
The technical aspects are well done, particularly the use of two screens positioned far stage left and far stage right. These were used to provide greater depth to the show. For example, we saw how Ever and Senga googled each other with Senga learning about autism and Ever experiencing Senga’s dances.
Dancing Lessons is an extremely intimate show, powerfully realized by a fantastic director and two smart actors. If this show is an example of the artistic vision of Osheroff, Riverside Theatre is in good hands.