In Rogue Machine Theatre's beautifully directed and acted West Coast premiere of Deanna Jent's heartbreaking play "Falling," teenaged Lisa Martin begs her mother, Tami, to send her older brother, Joshua, away. "I know you hate him," replies Tami. "But moms don't get that choice. We just love our kids no matter what."
This familiar sentiment acquires a painful poignancy in "Falling," which is based on Jent's experiences raising her own son. Eighteen-year-old Joshua suffers from severe autism. Tami (Anna Khaja) and her husband, Bill (Matthew Elkins), have created a comforting home for him: There's a cardboard box on the wall with a cord that he delights in pulling to release a dreamy shower of feathers and countless rituals and code words in place for defusing his anxiety.
But although Josh has the emotional development of a toddler, he has the body of a man, and the combination leads to the perpetual threat of lethal violence: His latest therapist has just quit in terror. In Matt Little's revelatory portrayal, Josh is endearingly human yet so unpredictable that he can increase the audience's pulse just by walking onstage. It's easy to sympathize with his beleaguered family — especially Lisa (Tara Windley), who can't adopt a pet or even have a friend over.
Director Elina de Santos deftly establishes the family's exhausting but familiar routine, carried out on Stephanie Kerley Schwartz's homey set, only hinting at the deep flaws in their system. Then a visit from Josh and Lisa's grandmother (Karen Landry) throws their fear-governed reality into relief: Grammy Sue has not seen Josh for many years and is scandalized by behavior that Tami and Bill take for granted. In turn, they find her exhortations to prayer unhelpful.
When events take an abrupt, fantastical turn, don't worry: Jent is too sophisticated a writer to give the Martin family an easy way out. Ultimately the clash of irreconcilable values — Tami's consuming love for Josh versus what she owes the rest of her family — has a spare, nearly Sophoclean power. Although Tami is indisputably the tragic heroine, there are no villains here, only complex, compassionately drawn, unforgettable people.
"Falling," Rogue Machine Theatre, 5041 Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends Dec. 1. $30. (855) 585-5185 or www.roguemachinetheatre.com. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.