First heard 19 years ago on BBC 4, Spoonface Steinberg is a fictional one-hour monologue, written by Tony Award®-winning playwright Lee Hall, who is probably best known for penning Billy Elliot. It has undergone a couple of transitions since 1997, passing through TV, especially on YouTube, and is now a dramatic reading, which premieres in America in Burning Coal Theatre Company’s Murphey School Auditorium in Raleigh.
The character who tells her story is a remarkably erudite six-year-old autistic child, a mathematics savant, with a fatal affliction that complicates her life. It brought a huge response from BBC 4 listeners, some even writing to say they had pulled their cars to the side of the road, being overcome with emotion listening to it.
Here in Raleigh, for the 12-performance run, a dozen members of the community play the child, “Spoonface,” a nickname derived from her very round head. On Friday, April 8th, the night we saw it, local corporate and securities lawyer Alec Donaldson sensitively read and interpreted the script.
The evening began with the song stylings of the combined groups The Arc of the Triangle’s Grace Notes Choir and the M’n’M Singers, local choruses directed by Dona McNeill and made up of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, whom we’ve been entertained by for several years. We were pleased once again to hear solos from Tommy Onorato, who really knows how to swing!
The show ended with an open discussion of the spectrum of autism for those who wished to remain and participate, with four experts in the field: a parent, a social worker, an inspirational speaker with the disability, and an executive of The Arc of The Triangle, an organization that provides services for affected families.
The reading itself is very well done by Alec Donaldson, interspersed with well-known arias recorded by Maria Callas from her many roles, brilliantly sung by Julianna Tauschinger-Dempsey. These included portions of the suicide scene from Puccini’s Turandot, the suicide scene from Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi, and other appropriate solos from Massenet, Verdi, and others. Tauschinger-Dempsey was accompanied by Christian L. Stahr.
Although the content of the reading is exceedingly emotional and touching (“heart-wrenching” is not good enough a word); it is purely fictional, and we found ourselves wondering if it truly represented a young girl who might be located somewhere in the autism spectrum. This was a question that also came up during the talkback after the show. It seems churlish to raise this question about such a beautifully written and well-intentioned piece, which still demonstrates the wide capacity of emotional and intellectual ranges available to people with this syndrome, and yet the question seems unavoidable.
We want to applaud Burning Coal artistic director Jerome Davis for undertaking the tremendous task of working through this reading with this many separate individuals, each of whom performs only one night of the run. The idea is unique and we hope it sets a precedent for other communities, to get folks to expand their own and other’s knowledge of autism.
This show is not a lecture; it is enlightening and thoroughly entertaining. You may not come away from it quite the same as you were when you came in.
SECOND OPINION: April 6th Durham, NC Indy Week mini-preview by Byron Woods: http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/spoonface-steinberg/Event?oid=5001723; April 6th Hillsborough, NC WHUP/104.7 FM interview with director Jerome Davis conducted by Wayne Leonard for “Lights Up”: https://whupfm.org/episode/lights-up-4616-permanent-archive/; and April 2nd Raleigh, NC News & Observer preview by Mary Cornatzer: http://www.newsobserver.com/entertainment/arts-culture/article69446502.html.
Burning Coal Theatre Company presents SPOONFACE STEINBERG at 7:30 p.m. April 14-16, 2 p.m. April 17, 7:30 p.m. April 21-23, and 2 p.m. April 24 in Murphey School Auditorium, 224 Polk St., Raleigh, North Carolina 27604, near the Historic Oakwood Section.
TICKETS: $25 ($15 students and active-duty military personnel and $20 seniors), except $5 Student Rush Tickets (sold at the door, 5 minutes before curtain), $15 Thursdays, and $15 per person for groups of 10 or more.
BOX OFFICE: 919-834-4001 or http://www.etix.com/.
VIDEO PREVIEW (by Nick Karner): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pZKk8D9theE.
COMMUNITY MEMBERS PLAYING “SPOONFACE”: http://burningcoal.org/spoonface-steinberg/#cast.
STUDY GUIDE: http://burningcoal.org/wp-content/uploads/sssg-1.pdf.
Spoonface Steinberg (1997 BBC Radio 4 dramatic monologue-turned-play): http://www.samuelfrench-london.co.uk/p/10647/spoonface-steinberg (Samuel French Ltd.) and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spoonface_Steinberg (Wikipedia).
Lee Hall (English dramatist and screenwriter): https://literature.britishcouncil.org/writer/lee-hall (British Council bio), http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0355822/ (Internet Movie Database), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lee_Hall_%28playwright%29 (Wikipedia).
Jerome Davis (Raleigh, NC director and Burning Coal’s founder and artistic director): http://burningcoal.org/jerome-davis/ (Burning Coal bio) and https://www.facebook.com/jerome.davis.5686 (Facebook page).
Martha Keravuori is a life-long theater artist — an actress, director, and stage manager — in North Carolina, around the country, and overseas. She has a theater degree from UNC-Greensboro, and has been active in the arts in Raleigh for the past 40 years. Martha is the retired executive director of the North Carolina Theatre Conference. Chuck Galle returned to Raleigh last year after a 17-year absence. He was active in community theater for many years, and directed the troupe of maximum-security inmates at Raleigh’s Central Prison known as the Central Prison Players. In New England, he performed on stage, on TV, and in films. He is the author of Stories I Never Told My Daughter — An Odyssey, which can be ordered on his website: http://www.chuckgalle.com/. Chuck Galle and Martha Keravuori review theater for Boom! Magazine of Cary. Click here to read more of their reviews for Boom! Magazine and here to read more of their reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.