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Clara, Fabrizio and a Musical IEP

Rick writes of a visit to New York and the surprising message portrayed in “The Light in the Piazza.”

In the past, I have been rather outspoken about the way in which the media and the entertainment world cover and handle Special Education issues. The print and electronic media continue to provide a platform for the unproven – and largely ineffective – “magic therapies” that claim to “cure” learning problems. Television comedians often view ADD as a wellspring of countless jokes and punch lines. Hollywood would have you believe that all people with special needs have mystical powers (a la Rainman) or tremendous hidden talents (a la Forrest Gump). Organizations like LD OnLine, LDA, CEC and ChADD make huge strides forward in education the American public…only to have their good work undone by a misleading episode of Dr. Phil or a poorly researched movie-of-the-week about Aspergers Syndrome!

I cringe whenever I watch a movie or television program in which a character has special needs. Invariably, the affected character will be “cured” by the end of the hour or, perhaps, he will be the recipient of town wide acclaim as his heroic actions save a drowning man, extinguish a blazing inferno or single handedly solve a decades old crime or mystery. These characters are portrayed as unreasonably heroic or pitiable. Seldom are they portrayed as flesh-and-blood human beings with strengths and struggles, torments and talents. Rather, the audience is coerced into viewing them as single-dimensional stereotypes that are to be pitied and/or admired.

Those of us who live and work with people with exceptionalities know that these cardboard portrayals are neither accurate nor instructive. People with special needs are dynamic, multi-faceted human beings who experience (and solicit) all of the emotions inherent in the human condition. They laugh. They cry. The experience joy, fear, consternation, resentment, jealously, anger and delight. They are curious, cantankerous, creative, cruel, comforting, cowardly and courageous…just like all of us.

How sad that playwrights, authors and screenwriters can’t present folks with special needs in a more realistic way.

Well, somebody has. Janet and I spent a wonder-filled afternoon recently at a matinee performance of Light in the Piazza at the Vivian Beaumont Theater in Manhattan’s Lincoln Center. Janet recently read Elizabeth Spencer’s 1950’s short story by the same name. Broadway composer and lyricist Adam Guettel wrote a musical based on the novella and the story’s compelling characters make a seamless move from the written page to the musical stage. What a story…what a play.

Clara is a beautiful young American girl in her early 20’s. As a result of an accident when she was a child, her mental capacities are greatly compromised. Her physical beauty and her sense of style create a very attractive and appealing “package”…but her ability to understand and deal with adulthood is significantly limited. Clara’s mother, Margaret, is extraordinarily (and understandably) protective of her but her well-intentioned mothering borders on unintentional smothering. Her fear that her daughter will be hurt or victimized becomes something of an obsession for her mother. It is difficult at times to determine which is Clara’s greatest handicap……her neurological disability or her stifling and over protective parent.

Margaret is never portrayed as a villain although the audience clearly sees the fact that her fears have placed Clara in a cocoon that isolates her from any person or place that could cause her harm. The mother wants to protect her beloved daughter and, absent an instruction book to provide this protection, she simply isolates the girl.

We all know young people with special needs who confront “the mixed blessing” every day. These children and youth are attractive, athletic kids who appear “normal” in every sense of the word. However, their “hidden handicaps” make the world a confusing and challenging place. These kids are often misunderstood and mistreated by peers and authority figures. We live in a visually oriented world and our culture is unable to understand that – in some cases – what you see is not what you get. It is indeed possible for a child to be physically attractive…and still have significant and impactful academic and social problems.

Clara and Margaret go to Florence for an extended holiday. There, Clara has a chance meeting with a handsome young Florentine named Fabrizio. He is immediately smitten with Clara and shadows them as they tour the city. Clara and Fabrizio manage to steal away several times to walk and talk. The young man’s limited English makes it impossible for him to recognize Clara’s limitations. They fall in love.

Margaret does all in her power to discourage and sabotage the relationship but young love finds a way. The subplot of this deceptively complex play involves Margaret’s ongoing conflict with her husband who is back in the United States. Their once romantic marriage is crumbling and – as the audience listens into their trans-Atlantic phone calls – it is obvious that their disagreement about the way that Clara should be parented is the source of much of their conflict. This disagreement between parents of adolescents and young adults with special needs is a common – and troubling – phenomenon in special education. Like Margaret, parents realize that there is no magic formula for the success of the special needs child as s/he enters adulthood. Small kids…small problems. Big kids…big problems. As one devoted Dad told me, “Young children give you headaches…adult children give you heartaches.”

In a climatic confrontation, Clara tells Margaret that she wants to marry Fabrizio and remain in Florence. Margaret’s first impulse is to forbid this plan, but she comes to realize that Fabrizio’s devotion, the affection of his loving extended family and the flexible social cocoon that Florence provides may be the ideal combination of structure/support/challenge that Clara desperately needs as she enters adulthood. In effect, Clara’s marriage to Fabrizio is the perfect IEP.

If you seek information on the lighting, staging, direction, casting or music from Light in the Piazza, you might want to seek out some professional reviews on the Internet. I loved every moment of the production…but I am not a very reliable judge of such things. As my family will attest, I love any and every “live” performance…Broadway musicals, high school plays, hotel lounge karaoke performances or nursing home talent shows. I am not a particularly astute or selective consumer of live theater.

But I have shared my adult life and career with hundreds of special needs families. I know well the challenges, fears, struggles, compromises and crises that these families daily confront. When the special needs child enters adulthood, the social/sexual/economic/spiritual needs become daunting. Moms and Dads often disagree about the long-term projections and plans for the adult/child and family conflict can results. Exacerbating the problem is the fact that the parents are wrestling with their mortality…and the siblings are attempting to build their own lives while simultaneously ruminating on the role that their special needs brother or sister will be playing in that life.

The Light in the Piazza explores these complex challenges and views the situation through the eyes of a bemused adult, her protective mother and her devoted lover. None of them see Clara very clearly. It is not until they combine their individual perceptions that a lucid picture of Clara emerges. All’s well that ends well.

If you find yourself in New York City, I would strongly recommend that you spend an evening at Lincoln Center with Clara, Margaret and Fabrizio. If you know and love a child with special needs, the characters and the plot will see achingly familiar. Clara’s story is a common one. Margaret’s courageous solutions should be.

With every good wish,

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