Mark St. Germain hadn’t intended to write the play. He had no interest in autism or dancers, and the “challenged man meets challenged woman” trope has never been his métier. St. Germain’s plays have always had a historical aspect to them, loosely based on real people and the situations that defined them.
But a chance meeting with a friend’s autistic son changed all that, and a delightful new play, “Dancing Lessons”, resulted. Called “…simply brilliant…” by Broadway World, and “A charming 95 minutes of enchantment” by All Things Considered, it may well be St. Germain’s finest work. And the kicker is, though these characters are fictional, they couldn’t be more “real” in terms of life and living. We’ve all met someone like them in our own lives.
The South Florida premiere of the delightful “Dancing Lessons” will kick off the Red Barn Theatre’s 38th season on December 19th, running through January 13th in Key West. Directed by the Barn’s artistic director Joy Hawkins, the play stars Dave Bootle and Carolyn Cooper, both turning in stellar performances that stretch them beyond anything they’ve done before.
The play is focused on Ever and Senga, New Yorkers who live two floors apart in the same apartment building. Ever is a brilliant professor of geosciences at a local college whose expertise is global warming but he has trouble with any other kind of warmth, as he is, in his words, an “Aspy” – a person with Asperger’s Syndrome, a high-functioning condition on the Autism spectrum. He is unable to tolerate even the most minimal physical contact and does not even make eye contact all that often.
Senga, on the other hand, is a successful Broadway dancer coping with a potentially career-ending leg injury, and not handling it well. Dancing had been her everything, and her injury has left her adrift in life and the world, encumbered by a massive leg brace that may be permanent, and she is not a little embittered. She has, in fact, shut out the world.
Until today. Because today, Ever knocks on Senga’s door and within seconds of her answering, offers her an outrageous sum of money if she would give him an hour’s lesson in dancing. He is being feted at an awards ceremony at his college and he doesn’t want to be “conspicuous”. Thus begins the tale of two very different people thrown by life into a cauldron where wonderful, very funny, often touching things can happen.
“They somehow make it work in a very strange way,” said Bootle at rehearsal recently. “It’s an odd relationship that probably shouldn’t happen, but it does, and we love it. There are some really, really funny parts in this play, but it will really touch your heart as well.”
The beauty of the play is that it asks us to think about which of these two characters is more impaired – the one hobbled by injury or the one hobbled by an inability to respond appropriately to social cues. St. Germain has us look at the layers of emotional and psychological truths that can be revealed by such a situation, and the common ground that can be discovered. And the ending – without revealing anything – is unexpected and totally enchanting.
Berkshire on Stage said of the play, “…it takes us to the verge of tears even as we are laughing delightedly…”. ArtsFuse called it “…provocative, fresh, and unexpectedly moving…”. And the Orlando Sentinel said it’s “…an off-kilter love story, a witty comedy.”
“Dancing Lessons” will run Tuesdays through Saturdays. There will be a special Preview Performance Monday, December 18th at 7 pm. All Tuesday performances are at 7 pm, while all other days are at 8 pm. There will be a special Opening Night party after the performance at La Te Da, where Bootle, fresh from his portrayal on the Red Barn stage, will be entertaining with his normal mix of pop tunes and witty repartee.
Tickets are available now at redbarntheatre.com and can be purchased individually or as part of a four-show subscription. You can also call 305-296-9911. The box office is open 3-5 pm, Monday through Friday, if you’d rather stop by in person. “Dancing Lessons” is sponsored in part by WLRN and the Monroe County Tourist Development Council.