by Rahila Gupta, directed by Guy Slater
It sounds like the setup for a based-on-a-true-story Lifetime Original Movie. The mother of a disabled child triumphs over society’s prejudices and builds a better life for her family. But British import DON’T WAKE ME is anything but a cloying treatment of this difficult topic. Though it does provoke some powerful emotions, this taut, 70-minute monologue takes a refreshingly unsentimental and truthful approach. The narrator, played by Jaye Griffiths, is an imperfect, even at times irresponsible mother. And yet there is an unmistakable heroism in the bond she shares with her extraordinary son and her refusal to give in the marginalizing machinery of the medical and educational systems.
Playwright Rahila Gupta cleverly avoids the presentational framework typical of one person shows. Instead of addressing the audience directly, the narrator speaks to a mounted photo of her son. As she attempts to get the details right, to never let the memory slip away, she paints a vivid picture of Nihal Armstrong and of the relationship they forged through years of struggle and affection. After a difficult birth Nihal is diagnosed with “infarction of the lentiform nuclei”: in other words, cerebral palsy. Luckily, the Bobath Institute is able to help with basic motor skills, and Nihal shows promising signs of development. Though he cannot speak in the conventional sense, he learns to express himself through a process known a facilitated communication. With the aid of a keyboard and a trained facilitator, Nihal can engage with the world verbally. It turns out he has a lot to say. He jokes, curses (Tourette Syndrome becomes another issue), and even writes prize-winning poetry. Special schools are tried, but prove overly programmatic. Mainstreaming, ironically, turns out to be a better option as regular teachers and administrators have fewer preset notions about children with special needs. The other kids take a liking to Nihal, and he begins to thrive. Unfortunately, though, the family’s optimism is short lived. New problems arise as Nihal enters adolescence, and his mother must learn to face the inevitable.
Director Guy Slater keeps the action feeling natural and spontaneous. The mostly bare stage is broken into specific playing areas, creating the different spaces – home, hospital, school, etc.- that define Nihal’s life. The show’s real power, though, derives from Griffiths’ performance. Nimbly navigating the script’s many emotional turns, she paints a compassionate, intelligent portrait of a fallible but ferociously determined woman confronting a fate with which no parent can truly cope. Griffith’s authenticity, wit and courage make the evening, despite its wrenching climax, luminous and life-affirming.
DON’T WAKE ME continues through April 20th at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, Between Park and Madison in Manhattan. Tickets (212) 753-5959 () Website: 59e59.org