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.,
WHEN: Through Sunday, Oct. 7. Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 3 p.m.


Thanks for reading through to the end…

We share your inclination to get the whole story. For the past 25 years, Xpress has been committed to in-depth, balanced reporting about the greater Asheville area. We want everyone to have access to our stories. That’s a big part of why we've never charged for the paper or put up a paywall.

We’re pretty sure that you know journalism faces big challenges these days. Advertising no longer pays the whole cost. Media outlets around the country are asking their readers to chip in. Xpress needs help, too. We hope you’ll consider signing up to be a member of Xpress. For as little as $5 a month — the cost of a craft beer or kombucha — you can help keep local journalism strong. It only takes a moment.

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.

Before you comment

The comments section is here to provide a platform for civil dialogue on the issues we face together as a local community. Xpress is committed to offering this platform for all voices, but when the tone of the discussion gets nasty or strays off topic, we believe many people choose not to participate. Xpress editors are determined to moderate comments to ensure a constructive interchange is maintained. All comments judged not to be in keeping with the spirit of civil discourse will be removed and repeat violators will be banned. See here for our terms of service. Thank you for being part of this effort to promote respectful discussion.

One thought on “Theater review: ‘Special Needs’ at The Magnetic Theatre

Leave a Reply

To leave a reply you may Login with your Mountain Xpress account, connect socially or enter your name and e-mail. Your e-mail address will not be published. All fields are required.