Theater review: ‘Special Needs’ at The Magnetic Theatre

INVISIBLE FRIENDS: The play 'Special Needs' traces the journey of Pierce (played by Cory Silver, center, with Julia Cunningham, left, and Christian Prins Coen) from victim to vanquisher as he discovers how our stories shape us. Playwright Madelyn Sergel paints a poignant, often funny portrait of a dysfunctional family learning to function. Photo by Katie Jones

Talk about a frazzled morning for mom: Son, 14, is lost in a video game. Daughter, 16, can’t find her library books. Dad, 40-ish, can’t find his keys — again. He’s shouting at son to pay attention — ­again.

And in the middle of the kitchen, two Special Ops soldiers in camouflage pants and black tops are locked in combat.

That’s the eye-catching introduction to the Goldman household in Madelyn Sergel’s Special Needs, receiving its North Carolina premiere at The Magnetic Theatre through Sunday, Oct. 7.

Everyone talking and moving at full tilt may be the playwright’s (and the director, Katie Jones’) shrewd way of giving us the same sensory overload that’s whirling inside the head of Pierce, the son.

Played by Cory Silver, Pierce is on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum. He’s also a math genius. He immediately grasps the solution to a geometry problem without knowing how he got there. But he tunes out the needs, nuances and even the presence of others.

And those two warriors, one female and one male? They are the playwright’s other shrewd way of getting us into Pierce’s head, and also mom’s, dad’s and sis’s.

Christian Prins Coen, in the role of Alpha, is an action hero come to life from Pierce’s video game. Julia Cunningham, as Omega, is an earth goddess dispensing wisdom with consoling mugs of tea.

Alpha instructs Pierce in warrior ways. His model is Judah Maccabee, since Pierce is proud of being Jewish. Alpha and Omega voice the words this chaotic but loving family thinks but can’t say. Coen and Cunningham have the intense focus of good fighters, and good actors, as they weave balletically among the family.

Pierce has invented Alpha to be his protector because he’s being bullied by a middle-school oaf he nicknames Behemoth, after the Bible monster. Shea Bruer gives Behemoth gangly menace and unnerving deadness behind the eyes. We see that Pierce has special gifts as well as needs. He can weave mythical and verbal structures along with mathematical ones.

Special Needs traces Pierce’s journey from victim to vanquisher as he discovers how our stories shape us. Silver skillfully modulates little eye blinks and temper flares to suggest Pierce’s autism, while letting his intelligence and good heart shine through. It is a thoroughly winning performance.

Sergel paints a poignant, often funny portrait of a dysfunctional family learning to function. We may wonder how the Goldmans have survived 14 years without better coping skills or an autism support network — could mom and dad really have allowed Behemoth to torment Pierce since first grade? — but Sergel based Pierce on her own son, so the feelings, if not the details, ring true.

Director Jones gives Victoria Lamberth as mom, Jason Phillips as dad, Hunter Gall as sis, Kay Wise-Denty as mom’s best friend, and Trissa King as the comic-but-sympathetic geometry teacher their own moments. If she lets the situation comedy overshadow the play’s larger reach, she choreographs its many characters and scenes smoothly. Sound designer Mary Zogzas perfectly captures the play’s moods with a subtle score.

WHAT: Special Needs by Madelyn Sergel
WHERE: The Magnetic Theatre, 375 Depot St., themagnetictheatre.org
WHEN: Through Sunday, Oct. 7. Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 3 p.m.

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About Arnold Wengrow
Arnold Wengrow was the founding artistic director of the Theatre of the University of North Carolina at Asheville in 1970 and retired as professor emeritus of drama in 1998. He is the author of The Designs of Santo Loquasto, published by the United States Institute for Theatre Technology.

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