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December 10, 2007

Madison theater explores disability-related issues

Jennifer A. Smith

Though it's purely coincidental, the last two plays I've seen in Madison have revolved around issues of disability.

I caught the opening of "Tidings from the Seasonally Affected," the new show from Encore Studio for the Performing Arts, which describes itself as "the only professional theater company for people with disabilities in Wisconsin" (and I'll take their word for it).

Written by Encore's artistic and executive director, KelsyAnne Schoenhaar, and Wendy Prosise, "Tidings" looks at the holiday season from the perspective of a young woman who is moving from an institution to a small group home. The play is set in 1977 ("the golden age of group homes," according to the program notes), as deinstitutionalization created significant change in the lives of those with physical and cognitive disabilities. "Tidings" is a serio-comic look at these issues, ranging from pointed observation to goofy musical interludes between scenes (my review of the show will appear soon in Isthmus). It's also a welcome offering for those seeking holiday fare off the Nutcracker/Christmas Carol path.

On Saturday, I caught one of the final performances of "A Nervous Smile," John Belluso's drama about three parents of children with severe cerebral palsy. It was staged by the University of Wisconsin-Madison's University Theatre, with MFA students acting and directing.

While "Tidings" looks at issues of disability largely from the perspective of those living with disabilities, "Smile" considers the psychological strain that able-bodied parents of disabled children can feel--leading to potentially rash actions. A wheelchair user himself, the late Belluso based his play on a real-life incident in which two parents abandoned their disabled child in a hospital emergency room.

Although these two shows are utterly different in tone, they both gave me something to think about as a person who is not faced with disability issues every day. As a theater-goer, I appreciate seeing work that's socially engaged but, for the most part, not heavy-handed.

Posted by Jennifer A. Smith at December 10, 2007 11:00 AM