In the opening scene of Vestibular Sense, 19-year-old Isaac (Brian Skellenger) sits alone in his living room at his electronic keyboard, slowly picking out the notes to Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries." At first he is hesitant, mechanical. Soon enough, though, his fingers fly through the soaring melody, evoking mythic heights and grandeur. The story that follows is anything but glorious, depicting instead a series of small victories and alien states of mind.
It's not until near the end of Ken LaZebnik's comedic drama that anyone speaks the word "autistic"—which stanches didacticism from bleeding into the play. Isaac is the overenthusiastic operator of a roller coaster at a Norse-themed amusement park. His co-workers view him as an oddball, perhaps, but they also regard him with various degrees of affection (and malice, as we later learn).
Back home, the domestic roller coaster is threatening to veer off the tracks. Isaac's mother has abandoned him and left him in the care of his doddering grandmother (Karen Landry), who is increasingly unable to deal with Isaac's demands and eccentricities. One of his primary requests is to be spun in the swing hanging from the living-room ceiling, which he uses to recalibrate the vestibular equilibrium of the show's title. The swing also quickly comes to represent Isaac's frequent need to retreat from reality.
Skellenger gives a compelling and relatively restrained performance, which is remarkable given the fact that he never stops moving, rocking, clenching his hands, averting his eyes. It's a vivid depiction of the tug-of-war between the autistic's sensory overload and his bafflement in the face of social complexity. Isaac sets about trying to land co-worker Risky (Lada Vishtak) as his girlfriend, and increasingly confides in Seneca (Ansa Akyea), but Skellenger maintains an integrity of distance in his performance. Isaac desires the connections the rest of us take for granted, but he lacks the skills to ingratiate, manipulate, and charm—that is, to do what everyone else does.
Sometimes they do it to him, as when the transparently evil Emin (Barzin Akhavan) draws Isaac into a harebrained guerilla fireworks conspiracy on the Fourth of July. The fiasco ends up costing Isaac his job. Then his grandmother's health goes south. Skellenger tightens his performance as Isaac's very real anxieties begin to spiral. For all the contrived mechanics of the plot, we come to appreciate how tenuous Isaac's situation is as he stares down (with eyes averted) the prospect of losing his independence.
While the show fails to click as a conventionally gripping drama, it manages to convey broader impressions about the autistic mind. In one great scene, Isaac and Emin scale the top of Isaac's roller coaster. The view terrifies the whimpering Emin, while Isaac is in bliss. He doesn't want to peer up into the ambiguity of the infinite sky, preferring the manageability of looking down at the firmness of earth. Similarly, when the fireworks scheme sucks Isaac into a moral dilemma about ratting out Emin's role, he becomes almost haughty. Lies, gray areas, ironic distance: To Isaac, they constitute dynamics that he not only doesn't understand, but that he spurns as inessential weakness.
One comes away sensing that Isaac, with all his monumental fear and anxiety, would choose to trade for the same sensory skill set that most everyone else possesses. But more profoundly, in his ideal world, everyone would instead be like he is: They would say only what they meant, they would swing to get their groove, and they would pass the time sharing the minutiae of their intricately detailed enthusiasms.
Finally Isaac melts down, amid a lovely and wrenching monologue by Landry about her lost wishes for a conventional grandson whom she could caress and love. Then he's raised up again by his friends in an equivocal ending that at least offers hope for Isaac's possibilities. By then we've grown inordinately fond of the young man who centers this tepid work. At the same time we realize he wouldn't return the sentiment, at least not in a fashion we'd understand.
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