ryan bondy & aaron stern
I love really terrific theatre for young people. It invigorates me to know that every day, even within their own schools, young people are sometimes given the opportunity to really experience what an exhilarating place the theatre can be. These moments often hook us for life. It is even more exciting to see a terrific show for young people that manages to tell an important and pertinent story in a way that is not didactic, predictable or maudlin. Jennifer Overton hits all the right chords with her newest play Spelling 2-5-5 which is presented at Eastern Front Theatre’s Supernova Festival via Carousel Players (St. Catharine’s, Ontario).
Simon and Jake are brothers. Simon is mature, responsible, sometimes overlooked by his mom and a brilliant speller. Jake is a whiz with numbers, loves comic books and has autism. Spelling 2-5-5 focuses on the relationship between these two boys as Simon must help Jake navigate through his day at school and be his constant protector and companion, often at the expense of the things he would rather be doing with his friends. When Simon finds out about a new Canadian reality show, So You Think You Can Spell, he sees an opportunity to become the star in his family and earn a bit of attention back from his mother, who is tirelessly tending to Jake. Yet, trouble erupts when Simon discovers that Jake has a secret power, a way to spell with numbers that might outshine him after all.
Jennifer Overton brings a wonderful specificity to Jake and his vivid inner world. The audience is immediately captivated by his zealous performances of his Superman and Batman comics and his recitation of a plethora of facts about historic buildings and their architects, as though his brain had Xeroxed the encyclopedia article. Overton peppers the play with so much humour, from Jake’s imitation of a V8 commercial to a running gag about Simon’s hair and their mother, an English teacher, who has lines like, “as Shakespeare would say ‘Breakith Thy Limbs!” The most poignant aspect of this play is that, while bursting with the joy and frivolity of youth, it centers on the empathy that grows between these two boys and it encourages the audience to develop empathy with the characters as well.
This is made extremely easy by the dexterous and precise performances by all four actors in the play. Ryan Bondy is dynamic and loveable as Simon with charismatic pride in his spelling abilities and a naive crush on his friend Laurie. Tiffany Martin is a delight as Laurie, a cheerleader for Simon who also plays the Lois Lane to Jake’s Clark Kent in a scene that is beautiful in its simplicity but speaks volumes for the power of compassion in this relationship. Martin also plays a multitude of spellers throughout the show, showing off her hilarious character acting. Kerry Ann Doherty gives a wonderful performance as Simon and Jake’s mom, an academic clearly overwhelmed by the responsibilities of her youngest son and at times at an emotional breaking point, Yet, overall the love that she has for both of them and their deep connections, often expressed in hand gestures, speaks the most powerfully. Aaron Stern gives a wonderfully nuanced performance as Jake. He is kept distant from the other characters onstage, both physically and psychologically, and the same distance is mirrored by the audience. His stature and body language and the timbre of his voice reach far beyond the imitation of certain characteristic behaviours of people with autism. Stern truly embodies every ounce of this character and makes him come so vividly to life that it is impossible for the audience to not be invested in his journey.
The play is directed by Pablo Felices Luna with all the boisterous energy of young boys, with every opportunity for humour and fun explored, despite the seemingly serious matter. Melanie McNeill’s set design adds some childhood magic to the production as audiences watch moving set pieces come together in a multitude of different arrangements like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. The musical score in between scenes by James Smith is energetic, familiar and pertinent, which is a fantastic combination to keep the audience’s energy up during scene changes.
The message in Spelling 2-5-5 is one that works beautifully in relation to this one very significant issue, the way that we respond to the challenges and the rewards of living and working with people with autism. Yet, it also works on a broader level in nurturing our compassion and empathy for anyone who is different from us and those who are bullied or ostracized. Most importantly, I think, it encourages us as a community to look at people’s strengths rather than their weaknesses.
It is a show I hope every young person in this city has the opportunity to see.
Spelling 2-5-5 plays at the Neptune Studio Theatre as part of Eastern Front Theatre’s Supernova Festival on the following dates:
Saturday May 12 at 4:00pm
Sunday May 13 at 4:00pm.
For more information or to book your tickets please click here or phone 902.429.7070.