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HTY deftly explores topic of autism

  • COURTESY HONOLULU THEATRE FOR YOUTH
    Nina Buck and Hermen Tesoro Jr. star in Honolulu Theatre for Youth's "Theory of Mind."
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When the objective is changing public perceptions about something, it is often more effective to "show" rather than "tell." Honolulu Theatre for Youth’s current production of "Theory of Mind" does this in convincing fashion.

We watch a young man named Bill making small talk as he arrives almost exactly on time to take a young woman named Hilo to a concert. He chatters repetitiously about why he didn’t park in the driveway and about other equally inane subjects — just as many people do when they’re nervous. We learn that it’s their first date. No wonder he’s nervous!

On the way to the concert they hit a squirrel. Bill shrugs it off — the animal is dead, what more can they do? Hilo insists they bury it and almost gets them arrested when she mouths off to a highway patrol officer who orders them to move the car.

‘THEORY OF MIND’

» Where: Tenney Theatre, St. Andrew’s Cathedral

» When: 4:30 p.m. Saturday through Jan. 22

» Cost: $16, $8 seniors and children

» Info: 839-9885 or www.htyweb.org

Bill and Hilo arrive at the concert. Bill can’t find the parking pass he paid for. Hilo insists on paying for the parking. Then he discovers that he can’t find the concert tickets or get duplicates printed at the box office.

So much for the concert.

Bill totally loses it.

Most people who see the HTY production will know going in that the play is about autism, a mental disorder that manifests itself in different ways, and that Bill is autistic. However, it turns out that many of Bill’s experiences and personal quirks are things most "neurotypical" — or "normal" — people can relate to.

Who hasn’t been nervous about a first date or planned in advance what to say to make the best impression in a certain situation? Who can’t relate to losing control when things go very, very wrong? Or being hurt when it turns out that someone you think is "hot" doesn’t feel the same way about you?

In short, playwright Ken LaZebnik, and co-directors Eric Johnson and Henry Ian Cusick "show" rather than "tell" us that autistic people can be pretty much like everybody else.

Hermen Tesoro Jr. (Bill) has made a career of playing quirky characters at HTY. His work here is one of his best performances. Nina Buck (Hilo) plays a character who is less appealing for reasons best left for the audience to discover. Both characters ring true as believable real-life people rather than as agitprop talking points.

Playwright LaZebnik allows Bill to describe the experiences of someone on the mild end of the autism spectrum without turning the play into a lecture. Hilo responds in ways that make it clear Bill’s autism is not an issue in their relationship.

Johnson and Cusick (yes, the actor who played Desmond on "Lost") stage the story with a fine balance between drama and comedy. Tesoro received lots of laughter from the opening night audience, but the laughs were for Bill’s witty one-liners rather than his occasional inability to cope.

Parents who make time to see "Theory of Mind" with their children will find opportunities to discuss important issues relevant to all preteens and those approaching dating age. Tesoro and Buck get things started with a short post-show discussion when they ask for audience comments about the characters’ behavior. Parents and kids can continue the discussion on the way home.

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