Lucy, currently on view at Ensemble Studio Theatre, is a mother/daughter story unlike any you have probably encountered before. What makes it truly original is that it spins into an intellectual adventure in which illness, evolution, and love all have their part to play. While it begins like a conventional TV movie in which two needy characters will eventually come together to help one another to become better people in the end, the artfulness of the script by Damien Atkins soon takes hold to surprise us with both the direction of the plot and the brash, fresh ideas that propel the startling turn of events in the second act.
One her generation’s finest stage actresses, Lisa Emery plays Vivian, an aloof, brilliant anthropologist who communicates with others with nothing if not difficulty. We learn she had a daughter with Gavin (Scott Sowers) some thirteen years earlier but gave the child over to her then husband in order to pursue her career. Except now Gavin pleads with his ex-wife to take Lucy for one year for both the good of the child and his own personal needs. This will be no easy transition; their child, Lucy, is severely autistic.
The play takes some necessarily bold shortcuts to keep the audience invested in what would otherwise be simply a harrowing series of scenes in which Vivian cannot control or understand her daughter. In short, Lucy (Lucy DeVito) narrates the story, telling the audience what she feels and understands from inside her autistic shell, moving effortlessly from her interior to exterior selves. Her performance is truly sensational.
The plot turns with unerring credibility thanks to the careful creation of its characters. Every character’s actions and reactions are calibrated with a realistic edge because they act out of their natures; most crucially, we can believe Vivian’s ability to ultimately access her child’s distress because she, herself, is so emotionally isolated. Though the mother has communicated her brilliance in a landmark book while her daughter can barely speak, the two are both compellingly alike. In addition, it’s important that we genuinely believe that Vivian is a uniquely gifted scientist — and we can see it both in the galvanizing performance by Emery and in a script that so deftly establishes and constantly reinforces that fact — because when Vivian comes up with a startling theory about autism, we have to buy into the fact that no matter how preposterous it may sound, it’s coming from a sound, scientific logic. We need not believe it, but we need to take it seriously out of our respect for its source; and we do believe that Vivian is smarter than anyone else in this play.
Sowers beautifully underplays the unspoken love he still has for his ex-wife and the devotion he feels towards his daughter. Christopher Duva invests his therapist/teacher role with a deep professionalism, while Kiera Naughton, who plays Vivian’s best friend and assistant, Julia, gives humanity and warmth to a role that might actually be the hardest character in the show to play because she exists more obviously as a foil and a necessary element of the plot. Be that as it may, she does it exceedingly well.
The costume design by Suzanne Chesney is quietly suitable against the expressive set by Ryan Elliot Kravetz and lighting by Chris Dallos that combine to give us a visceral sense of Lucy’s interior mindset, smartly abetted by the essential sound design created by David Margolin Lawson. All of the creative elements, but most especially the show’s performances, have been flawlessly assembled and directed by William Carden.
Lucy is a joint venture of EST and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation; the two organizations have joined together to present theater that delves into the world of science and technology. They have done so, in this instance, with high honors because both theater and science are so very well served. And so is the issue at hand: autism. Be sure to read the stunning information in the program about the alarming incidence of autism and the relative lack of funding for this disability compared to other far less prevalent medical problems. That’s as big an eye-opener as the play, itself.