Polished and poised performance brings poignant story home

Gordon Jones
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Opening a provincial tour at the St. John's Arts and Culture Centre, "God's Middle Name" - what an attention-grabbing title - dramatizes the unremitting difficulties and frustrations, and the intermittent joys and rewards of bringing up a child with the incurable neurological and behavioural syndrome called autism.

Author and actor Jennifer Overton, mother of an autistic boy, plays herself, while Christian Murray slips fluently in and out of the roles of husband, child, and other figures who interact with the family.

Opening a provincial tour at the St. John's Arts and Culture Centre, "God's Middle Name" - what an attention-grabbing title - dramatizes the unremitting difficulties and frustrations, and the intermittent joys and rewards of bringing up a child with the incurable neurological and behavioural syndrome called autism.

Author and actor Jennifer Overton, mother of an autistic boy, plays herself, while Christian Murray slips fluently in and out of the roles of husband, child, and other figures who interact with the family.

On an abstract geometrical set, elegantly simple and easy to travel, before sharp scenic projections on an upstage screen, Overton narrates and enacts a family's voyage through autism - through phases of incredulity, denial, anger, and ultimately acquiescence.

The behaviourally compulsive and socially dysfunctional boy with a phenomenal memory is obsessed with The Wheel of Fortune game show. Parenting him is a frantic dance marathon - no loud noises, no surprises, no touching or close proximity, and, for the parents, no respite from the burdens of care and responsibility. Marriage, career, financial security - all are subordinated to the demands of autism.

Something of a theatrical show-and-tell, combining autobiographical experience and consumer guidance to the care and understanding of autism, Overton's confidential narration weaves together didactic, comic, and sentimental strands, connecting up illustrative episodes ranging from anger through ruefulness to brightly upbeat comedy.

Overton is a vivacious and sympathetic stage presence, a good-humoured teller of an engrossing bittersweet personal story, veined with seams of laughter. Complemented by remarkable and convincing representation of childhood autism by adult actor Christian Murray, Overton's candour and self-exposure keep the audience in the palm of her hand.

Sponsored in part by the Autism Society of Newfoundland and Labrador, the Halifax-based In Good Company's honest, affecting, and engaging production of "God's Middle Name" is adapted for the stage from Overton's autobiographical book, "Snapshots of Autism." Directed by Scott Burke, it played St. John's on a snow-laden Thursday and is now on the road for one-night stands in Carbonear, Grand Falls-Windsor, Gander, Labrador West, Goose Bay, and Stephenville, closing in Corner Brook on February 9.

On opening night, before a small but sufficient audience, polished production and poised performance - and perhaps acknowledgement of poignant lived experience - received a well-merited standing ovation.

Tickets for a singular and entertaining 85-minute show are $22. You will not regret braving the elements to see it.

Organizations: Autism Society of Newfoundland and Labrador, Good Company

Geographic location: St. John's, Carbonear, Gander Labrador West Goose Bay Corner Brook

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