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Autism spotlighted in local wedding comedy as 'Falling' opens in NYC

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 21, 2012 - A little more than a year ago, you probably couldn’t name one play that had autism as a theme. Now, there are at least three, all rooted in St. Louis. One of them -- Deanna Jent’s “Falling” -- is opening Off Broadway Sept. 27.

The latest, “Tony and Liz Tie the Knot,” opens Sept. 21 at the Gaslight Theatrein the Central West End. It was inspired by a number of wedding comedies playing around the country. “Tony and Liz,” by Vanessa Roman and Susan Berardi, follows the groom’s 20-something brother George Vasapoli, who has Asperger’s, as he navigates his first romance with a girl named Amanda.

That’s the first act. Each night in Act Two, the audience joins the cast in a wedding reception with Italian dinners from the likes of Dominic’s, Tucci and Fresta’s Trattoria and Favazza’s, and, of course, wedding cake.

One wedding is stressful enough. Imagine the strain of organizing a half-dozen.

“We planned six different weddings with a different meal every night, and a different cake every night,” Roman said. “It was exciting to be planning a wedding where I didn't have to be the bride -- all of the fun of the wedding, none of the pressure of getting married.”

Family affair

“Tony and Liz” is the second play with an autism theme, and the second to benefit an organization called Action for Autism, on which Roman and Berardi have collaborated. Last fall, their “The Violinist,” about a boy with Asperger’s who becomes embroiled in a murder mystery, was staged at the Missouri History Museum.

“We found out about “Falling” before both our plays opened,” Roman said. “We all met and talked about being mothers of children with autism.”

Each has a child with autism as well as others not on the autism spectrum. Roman, whose 15-year-old daughter Marisa is in "Tony and Liz," has a 22-year-old son with Asperger’s. Berardi’s 13-year-old son Peyton has Asperger's but he plays a character without autism in the new play. Two other Berardi sons also have roles in "Tony and Liz."

Jent, whose 18-year-old son has severe autism, sees the advent of autism-themed plays as part of a broader, new emphasis on people who are out of the mainstream. She cites “Next to Normal,” about a family with a mother who has bi-polar disorder, as well as a Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award winner, “On the Spectrum,” which questions the concept of autism as a disability.

“I think there is a trend toward plays exploring differences,” Jent wrote in an email. “I think Vanessa and Susan have found a wonderful way to raise both consciousness about, and funds for, children with autism.”

Role takes the cake

Andrew Topping plays George, the brother with Asperger’s, who’s a graduate student in art at Washington University. Observing a friend with Asperger’s and also Peyton Berardi helped Topping prepare for the role of George.

Like many people with Asperger’s, George understands the world in a literal sense. Demonstrating the character’s quirks is George’s answer to girlfriend Amanda’s question about the food at his family’s Italian restaurant below their apartment on The Hill.

“We make Chicago pizza downstairs,” George says.
“Oh, what does it taste like?” Amanda asks.
“It tastes the same no matter what floor you’re on,” George answers.

Embodying a character who lacks confidence was a challenge for Topping.

“In the theater, the acting is always bigger and this part can’t be bigger -- the man’s not bigger than life. He feels very small, very insecure,” Topping said.

It’s a plum role for Topping. For one thing, he never goes away hungry.

“It’s the dream. I get fed for a week and I get to be in a play,” Topping said.

The six Italian restaurants are providing dinners at reduced costs. The six wedding cakes are donated by local bakeries including Tiers of Love, Sweets to Remember and Le Grand Catering.

The wedding and bridesmaids dresses are provided free of charge by The Wedding Shoppe in Troy, Mo., which also secured the donated menswear from Jim’s Tuxedo. The wedding gown is hand-made and will later will used as a display item, according to Angie Ruckel, who owns the store along with her mother.

“Cindy, who made the dress, has a son with autism and we all have friends and family members with autism,” Ruckel said.

Does Roman have an aspirations for the dress (or one like it) and the play to wind up in New York City as “Falling” did?

“Of course,” Roman said. “We’re thrilled for Deanna, and we’re hoping she’s paving the way for other St. Louis authors to follow in her footsteps.”