When you hear that a play is going to be about autism, you might think: oh, a kind of movie of the week where we learn about a child’s condition and we feel concern and pity for the family involved. Playwright James Christy makes it very clear that isn’t the play he has written, though a child with autism (who never appears on stage) is the catalyst in his comedy about relationships and disconnects, “Love and Communication.” It opens Thursday, October 7, at Passage Theater in Trenton, under the direction of Adam Immerwahr, whose directorial credits include work at the McCarter Theater. Christy and his family live in Princeton.
This is Christy’s fifth full-length play, and he has written a number of short plays; however, this is the first time that he has dealt directly with personal material. Not a docudrama, his family’s experience with their autistic son, Jimmy, is just the jumping off place for a theme he has addressed before: relationships. “Living with autism on a day to day basis, I became a little less afraid of it so I started imagining characters in the situation, perhaps a more heightened situation, reacting in different ways. The play was born.”
Looking at a definition of autism on the web that was written by the Mayo Clinic staff, I read: “Though symptoms and severity vary, all autism disorders affect a child’s ability to communicate and interact with others.” The child in the play is not the only one dealing with disconnects.
Christy says that the director’s focus in rehearsal has been on personal interactions and how the characters try to find emotional links. “One of the ways I try to do this is with humor. I think it’s a funny play — a surprising play. People may come to the play with certain expectations, and they will be surprised in the direction that it goes.” He promises a play that is at times naturalistic and sometimes more abstract. “At times it is surreal, maybe Kafkaesque. I’ve put people (two sets of parents and several educators with differing philosophies) in an extreme situation that is not so removed from our day to day experience.” In a playwright statement on Passage’s website, he echoes the writer’s adage: “Write about what you know,” noting that though he began writing from his personal experience, the characters in his play took a different line. “While my wife and I became closer through the experience, the parents in the play respond to a surreal situation by moving further apart from one another. And the play became as much about their efforts to connect with each other as with their son.”
Christy’s own family enjoyed an abundance of connections to the theater and the arts. “I’ve grown up around the theater,” says Christy in a phone interview. His father, James Christy Sr., is a director and theater professor at Villanova University. Retired from teaching, he keeps busy directing, including “Ghost Writer,” a new play by Michael Hollinger currently playing at the Arden Theater in Philadelphia. His dad often took young Christy along to theater rehearsals. And when a child was needed in a play, he was it. His mother, Francine, was a music teacher in the Radnor, PA, school system. She is now retired but continues to give private piano lessons.
Almost 20 years ago his sister, Jacqueline, founded Access Theater, a theater company in New York’s Tribeca neighborhood. “She took a fourth floor walkup in an empty warehouse and converted it into a theater and offices.” The company specialized in development of new plays and writers for the theater. Older sister Noelie has three children and teaches first grade in Morristown.
Starting out as a way to share family videos with friends, Christy’s wife turned a hobby into a business. She makes custom web movies and cards at thankyoulove.com. They have three children: Jimmy, Phillip, and Angela.
Christy began his theatrical career early. In addition to appearing in plays directed by his father, Passage Theater artistic director June Ballinger tells me that, while still a kid, Christy appeared in the movie “Dead Poets Society” as the character Spaz. He appeared in a few other films and some television shows, where he edged into writing. A 1993 Villanova graduate with a major in English, Christy got an internship in New York City at ABC’s “Prime Time Live,” which evolved into a job making education videos as well as website work. “I work with internet technology, but I’m really not a ‘techie,’” he clarifies. “I’m more about words.” But words or technology, it all comes back to communication. His current “day job” is as an editor for a health care company, Alere, where his focus is on wellness guidelines, such as losing weight or quitting smoking.
He entered his first play, “Creep,” in the national short play contest at the Actors Theater of Louisville where it won an award as “Best Short Play.” Encouraged, he tells me, “I thought, ‘Hey, I can do this stuff.’” He developed the play into a full-length version, which premiered at the Fringe Festival in New York City. From there, it was picked up by the Cherry Lane Theater where well-respected playwright Michael Weller (“Spoils of War,” “Loose Ends,” and “Moonchildren”) noticed it and suggested it for production by the Broken Watch Theater Company. It was produced there in August, 2006.
With this production, the play was retitled “Never Tell, and Christy received his first review in the New York Times. The Times review said: “On the surface ‘Never Tell’ is about the content on video screens. Ultimately it is about personal relationships. Mr. Christy has a real gift for contemporary, insightful, sometimes darkly funny dialogue that reflects believable human interaction.” He tells me this was a mark for him as a young writer, to receive the validity factor of his inclusion in the “real” theater world. “Never Tell” has since received other productions and has been published. Christy is still writing about interaction between people.
This past July, two of his plays were included in new play development programs: “A Great War” at the Phoenix New Works Conference and “Love and Communication” at the Playpenn Playwrights Conference.
Parenting always produces choices that have to be made. In “Love and Communication,” the parents wrestle with the choices of what therapy is better for their autistic son. They don’t agree, with the mother “attracted to a less science based program that encourages emotional connections.” The father opts instead for the science-based Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) program. (In real life, the playwright’s autistic son attends ABA-based Douglass Developmental Disabilities Center, part of Rutgers University.) The play also addresses the challenges of communication with the bureaucracy of the school system the parents turn to for assistance.
Love and Communication, Passage Theater, Mill Hill Playhouse, Front and Montgomery streets, Trenton. Opens Thursday, October 8, 8 p.m. World premiere of story about parents of a child with autism. $20 to $30. Through Sunday, October 24. 609-392-0766 or www.passagetheatre.org.