Autism, as seen onstage

A new play depicts a scientist's struggle to understand her autistic teenager

Melinda Wenner
Nov 1, 2007
Lucy is a profoundly touching play running at Manhattan's Ensemble Studio Theatre in which the title role -- Lucy -- is a 13-year-old autistic girl. Raised by her father, Lucy struggles when she is forced to move in with her estranged mother Vivian, a famous anthropologist who has no interest in being a full-time mom.
The relationship between Lucy and Vivian is, at first, explosive. Vivian is wrought with questions about what autism is, how it comes about and how to best care for an autistic child, all of which are contentious issues in science today. It becomes immediately clear that Canadian actor and playwright Damien Atkins, who wrote the play after visiting a school for autistic children, has done his homework. For example, at first, Vivian becomes convinced that Lucy's illness is linked to the ethyl mercury she received in her childhood vaccinations, but Lucy's psychologist points out that the scientific literature has essentially debunked that theory.
As Vivian and Lucy get to know each other better, Vivian comes to realize that they're not that different after all -- and that's when the real problems start, especially when she begins mixing her personal life with science. It's not surprising that, as an anthropologist, Vivian tries to understand her daughter's behavior in an evolutionary context, but she's not exactly objective. She begins to see her daughter's traits as adaptations that might end up saving humanity. "Don't you get it?" Vivian asks one of her colleagues. "Lucy isn't sick, she's brilliant. She's the future."
Vivian is, despite her limitations, immediately likeable and empathetic. And Lucy -- played by Lucy DeVito, the daughter of actors Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman -- not only convincingly and compassionately captures how an autistic child acts, but, with the help of Atkins' careful writing, also shows the audience how an autistic teenager sees the world. She has keen observational skills -- for instance, she notices and remembers when her father has "water on his cheeks" -- but she can't always translate these observations into something meaningful, like tears. Atkins has made Lucy's character very human, because "a lot of autistic symptoms or autistic behaviors are really human behaviors magnified or dimmed to an extreme, like an oversensitivity or an undersensitivity," he explains. Lucy is not just a play about autism: It is a play that, through autism, explores a number of complex issues about what it means to be human. By providing the audience with a peek into Lucy's world, Atkins shows us that autism is not the real mystery -- we are. Just as Vivian tries to understand Lucy, "Lucy is exploring the mystery of Vivian, so she's exploring the mystery of us," Atkins says. Lucy runs through November 18 at the Ensemble Studio Theatre in Manhattan.Images: Lucy (Lucy DeVito) and Vivian (Lisa Emery); psychologist Morris (Christopher Duva) and Lucy (Lucy DeVito); Vivian (Lisa Emery), Lucy (Lucy DeVito), and Lucy's father, Gavin (Scott Sowers). All photos by Carol Rosegg.Melinda Wenner mail@the-scientist.comLinks within this article: Ensemble Studio Theatre http://www.ensemblestudiotheatre.orgK. Heyman, "The autism genetics quandary," The Scientist, November 7, 2005. Zielinska, "Copy number linked to autism," The Scientist, March 15, 2007. et al, "Thimerosal-containing vaccines and autistic spectrum disorder: a critical review of published original data." Pediatrics 2004 Sep;114(3):793-804.