While most parents say they'd give up their own lives for their children's, few are called to do so. One exception, however, is parents who spend decades as caretakers for profoundly handicapped children, often giving up large chunks of their own lives in the process.
It's this sort of sacrifice that's at the heart of A Nervous Smile, now at Bang and Clatter in Akron.
This unblinking study of two sets of parents, both of which have children afflicted with cerebral palsy, was written with insight and grim humor by John Belluso. And he spoke from experience, having been wheelchair-bound with a bone disorder from childhood until death at 36. Although he overplays his hand at times, his is a work that can send your soul searching in a number of directions, and lead you back to that biblical admonition, "Judge not . . ."
Brian and Eileen are a married couple, strong financially but otherwise crumbling — mainly because their teenage daughter, Emily, has CP. This has driven them in different directions: Eileen to the bottom of scotch and Vicodin bottles; Brian to the arms of Nicole, a married woman whom he and Eileen met at a CP parent support group.
Both families have children beset by the same disorder. They join forces when Brian reveals his and Eileen's stunning plan to split up and abandon their daughter at a hospital, leaving a substantial bank account for her care. Brian invites Nicole to leave her son with her clueless husband and escape to Argentina. Oddly, Nicole hurriedly accepts this proposal — one of the rare discordant notes playwright Belluso strikes.
Of course, the abandonment scheme is at once unthinkable and, from the perspective of a frustrated and exhausted caretaker, terrifyingly rational. As Eileen explains it: "This will work, as long as we walk toward the things we love and away from the things we pity." Such a case is rare, but it does happen: The script was based on real events in Pennsylvania.
As Eileen, Dede Klein is wonderfully brittle and bitchy, but she reveals just enough heart to let you know there's a person inside her withered shell. Also splendid is Linda Ryan, who makes the Russian Jewish candor of Blanka, who helps care for Emily, refreshingly biting. Susan Lucier handles Nicole well, although she seems soft on lines at times. As Brian, Michael Gatto never overcomes his physical stiffness and lack of chemistry with Lucier.
Unfortunately, the playwright has Blanka expound on the play's themes in a late and painfully obvious soliloquy. But otherwise, Smile throws sparks, thanks to director Mark Mayo's brisk pace and intensifying mood.