Center of the Margins at Mixed Blood

Digging deep into the heart: (from left) Taj Ruler, Brittany Bradford, and Jevetta Steele in My Secret Language of Wishes
Rich Ryan

Through the decades, Mixed Blood Theatre has been dedicated to creating art for and about underrepresented audiences, and that drive is clearly on view in Center of the Margins, a three-play festival that explores issues of disability.

The three shows approach the issues in different ways, but, as with a lot of drama, love is at the heart of each one. How they succeed from there varies from show to show.

On the Spectrum: There are moments when life seems to stop and everything, if just for a second, comes into perfect focus. It can happen in relationships, and it can happen in art. It happens in the waning moments of On the Spectrum, as the play's three characters experience a beautiful moment of clarity. They've taken a long path to get there in Ken LaZebnik's world-premiere play.

The story centers on Mac (Skyler Nowinski), who has Asperger's. Years of therapy and hard work have allowed him to function well in society, to the point that he is applying to law school. As a way to make money (finances are extremely tight for him and his mother, beautifully played by Regina Marie Williams), he uses his computer skills to work on a website being developed by Iris (Laura Robinson).

She is also on the spectrum, but at a place that makes face-to-face interaction difficult. That comes to a head when Mac visits Iris and the story moves into a deeper, moving space. Much of that comes from LaZebnik's beautifully crafted script, which allows the characters to live, breathe, and grow while avoiding the clichés that can hamper dramas about disability. Even more comes from the three terrific actors—under the guiding hand of director Jack Reuler—who bypass easy choices to instead make characters we care about, and whose moment of emotional triumph could melt the coldest heart.

Gruesome Playground Injuries: Director Aditi Kapil made two major changes to Rajiv Joseph's play. She changed the characters from a man and a woman to two women, and she changed them from two hearing characters to a pair of deaf ones who communicate through sign language. Apart from between-scenes music (provided by harpist Nicolas Carter), the show is played out in silence. The change not only gives a pair of talented performers a chance to share the stage, it adds layers to an already rich piece about the perseverance of friendship.

Kayleen (Alexandria Wailes) and Dag (Nic Zapko) are first shown in the nurse's office at age eight. Dag has jumped her bike off the roof, imitating idol Evel Knievel. Kayleen has a tender stomach that presages problems that grow during the rest of the play, as we bounce backward and forward in their lives. Throughout, Dag's attraction to danger and injury remain, while Kayleen slides down into a deeper, darker hole that leaves multiple scars, both on the surface and inside.

Joseph deals honestly with how even the best of friends can drift apart, even when the connections are so strong. The two performers bring this out in each scene, showcasing characters that are at turns funny, angry, and lost, but always human. I don't speak ASL, but the supertitles projected at the back of the stage kept me up to date with the story, while the expressive hands and bodies of the two performers contributed to the show's engaging and complex emotional journey, until the silence in the theater seemed the most natural thing of all.

My Secret Language of Wishes: A misfire can be as frustrating as a total miss, especially when it has as much potential as My Secret Language of Wishes, which, at its best, digs deep into the heart and wonders, What exactly is love? The audience has to wait patiently for these moments of breathtaking clarity in Cori Thomas's play, which centers on a young disabled woman, Rose, and the battle between a poor, white care worker and a rich African-American real estate agent over the right to adopt her.

In the mix is an attorney, Jo, who takes the case while her home life with partner Cecilia falls apart over having a child. It's a potent brew that sometimes gets lost as the plot progresses and takes a variety of twists that only complicate matters and never deepens our understanding of the characters or their situation.

Character-wise, I had a hard time seeing the love that connected Jo to Cecilia. They are fighting from their first scene together and continue to go over the same ground in each scene. Maybe something was lacking in the chemistry between the two actors (Signe Harriday and Nora Montanez), or maybe the script just needed a moment where they actually seemed to enjoy sharing the same space. Without something like that, it was hard to be invested in their relationship.

Jevetta Steele's Brenda, the wealthy woman fighting for Rose, comes off as a caricature of a vain, evil rich person for most of the show but does finally gain some dimensions in the play's heartbreaking final moments. Most of that heartbreak comes from the terrific performance by Brittany Bradford as Rose, who brings out the humor, pain, and humanity that is trapped in a body that refuses to cooperate.

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