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Originally written as a one-hour radio drama, Spoonface Steinberg tells the story of a seven-year-old girl not only living with autism, but also with terminal cancer. Written by Lee Hall, this Burning Coal Theatre Company production marks the play's United States premiere. Written in the idiosyncratic dialect of autism, Spoonface's reflections on her short life, from her being "backwards" to her separated parents to her imminent death, are both childlike and profound. She is fascinated with opera, especially the beautiful ladies who "sing the dying." Her monologues are punctuated with snippets of opera, this "proper music" that is so sad and makes her "so clear." Her clarity is evident in her observations of those around her, such as at the hospital when the doctors smile, "which means something is wrong." In fact, though autism is characterized by a lack of social understanding, Spoonface's recollections deal primarily with her observations of others.
Each night of Burning Coal's production, a different actor will play the role of Spoonface. Barbara Goodmon's opening night performance was appropriately understated, but stopped short of conveying Spoonface as the child that she is. The script, sprinkled with British colloquialisms, might benefit from a reading with a dialect. And in this unique production, with a different actor each night, audiences will hear a different interpretation each night.
One constant will be the music, performed by pianist Christian Stahr and singer Julianna Tauschinger-Dempsey. Juxtaposed with Spoonface's matter-of-fact dialogue, Tauschinger-Dempsey's beautiful interludes support and deepen the text and leave the audience with a true understanding of Spoonface's obsession with opera. As Spoonface would say, her voice is truly "a lovely piece of beauty in the world." Director Jerome Davis' choice to use live music has truly enhanced the production.
With the reader seated center stage opposite the musical duet, Spoonface Steinberg is much like a staged reading. The actor and musician face each other, perhaps a literal manifestation of Spoonface "facing the music" of her deteriorating condition. Elizabeth Newton's simple set consists of twelve windowpanes, presumably one for each speaker's interpretation, lit by Matthew Adelson's predominately blue and yellow lighting, save one punctuation of red, reflecting the cool mood of Spoonface's words.
This unique staging of Spoonface Steinberg takes the audience through a spectrum of emotions. It's a glimpse into the mind of an autistic child that emphasizes certain aspects of such a condition – difficulty with language, socialization, and perseverance on unlikely subjects – and uses them as tools to make connections with the outside world in a way their bearers are often prevented from doing. We are allowed to understand, as Spoonface reminds us, "To be different is to be who you are."
Spoonface Steinberg continues through Sunday, April 24. For more information on this production, please view the sidebar.