Nothing in life quite compares to the first years of a child’s development. Everything that happens, whether it’s in the crib, on the floor, in the car, or during dinner, instantly becomes unforgettable. Those first smiles, never mind the first words and baby steps, send parents’ hearts racing. When Annie Torsiglieri gave birth to twin boys, she and her husband started out with double the fun, but as time went on, their feelings turned to fear and dismay. By the time the boys were 15 months old, it was clear that one of their children was not developing like the other. Disengaged from his human environment, he was more interested in watching a ceiling fan than he was in laughing and playing with mom and dad. After an exhausting round of consultations with various medical and psychiatric specialists, Torsiglieri and her spouse finally received a diagnosis: “Your child has autism spectrum disorder (ASD).”
In the award-winning solo show “A” Train, which will be at Center Stage Theater on Saturday-Sunday, October 20-21, Torsiglieri, an accomplished actor and associate professor of theater at UCSB, tells the story of her family’s journey through a series of characters. Amy, the main storyteller, is clearly based on the author, and she holds the show together with passion, nerve, and a healthy dose of cathartic profanity. Through Torsiglieri’s incisive writing and talent as a performer, Amy is joined onstage by a cast of characters drawn from stops along the “A Train” of the autism experience. Doctors, social workers, fellow mothers, and a variety of “experts” weigh in, often with conflicting advice. Bureaucratic obstacles rear up to thwart the family with the regularity of death and taxes, yet throughout, Amy keeps her sense of humor — even, or perhaps especially, when she fears she will lose her mind.
A product of UCSB’s prestigious Launch Pad program for developing new plays, “A” Train won Best Production at the 2017 United Solo Festival in New York City. Directed by UCSB’s Risa Brainin, with music by PCPA’s Brad Carroll, the show has only been seen by friends and family members in Santa Barbara — until now. This weekend’s public performances thus represent an important turning point not only for Torsiglieri and the show but also for theater in our community. “A” Train is simply the best solo show and quite likely the best original play of any kind to come out of Santa Barbara this decade, and it will undoubtedly hit hard when it hits home. The emotional impact of Torsiglieri’s performance cannot be overstated. Torsiglieri has played Falstaff at UCSB, and there’s something that’s almost Falstaffian about the bleakly funny, profoundly touching humor that gets her character through this ordeal.
Not to give too much away, but there’s a second meaning to the title, and it has to do with her son’s love of the New York subway system. The child’s single-minded devotion to riding the trains is neither sentimentalized nor lampooned. Like life, it’s funny one moment, and the next, well, you cry. Throughout, Torsiglieri steers between the poles of reaction to ASD, refusing to join either the neurodiversity camp, in which the limitations imposed by the condition are wished away as neutral-sounding “cognitive differences,” and the other side, a fear-based response Torsiglieri has nicknamed the “danger, Will Robinson” reaction. Ultimately, what comes through most is this wonderful family’s courage to accept the unexpected and to live in the moment, meeting the joys and hardships as they are doled out. Proceeds from these performances will be donated to Hidden Wings in Solvang, a nonprofit founded by Jim and Julia Billington that helps young people with autism find and develop their inner strengths.
“A” Train is at Center Stage Theater (751 Paseo Nuevo) Saturday-Sunday, October 20-21, 7:30 p.m. For tickets and information, see centerstagetheater.org or call 963-0408