THERE'S SOMETHING ICKY about able-bodied performers impersonating disabled ones, something blackface-y and strange, particularly when the obstacles of a disabled character are harnessed toward making able-bodied audiences feel better about themselves, as always seems to happen when Hollywood gets involved. (Sean Penn, I am looking in your direction.)
Kristin Newbom's Telethon, currently running at Portland Playhouse under the direction of Rose Riordan, makes no apologies for staking claim in such perilous ground—and to the tremendous credit of both Newbom's writing and Portland Playhouse's production, it doesn't need to.
Telethon traces, in four scenes over the course of a year, the developing relationships between five characters who live and work at a home for people with cerebral palsy. The play is not sentimental; it is not precious; it does not surreptitiously aim to make you feel grateful that you do not have cerebral palsy, another common subtext when Hollywood gets involved.
Shelly (Nikki Weaver), Lewis (Casey McFeron), and Larry (Gary Norman) all have cerebral palsy, the severity of which ranges from difficulty walking to almost total non-responsiveness. Their caretakers Scott (Michael O'Connell) and Anne (Valerie Stevens) are tired and lower-class and basically decent, as they struggle to balance the demands of caring for their charges with their own personal lives; all of this is offset by considerable irreverence and humor. (Each of the play's scenes is set on a different holiday; the costume-clad fivesome sits at a table at Dunkin' Donuts, dressed as bunnies or Nativity characters, as they stop for donuts and coffee after a fundraising trip.)
Shelly, Lewis, and Larry have different degrees of CP—Lewis has difficulty walking but no difficulty whatsoever constructing an insult to lob at Shelly, while Larry sits silently in his wheelchair, occasionally, through a prodigious feat of emoting on Gary Norman's part, projecting happiness or alarm. Nikki Weaver pulls off the hardest trick—she flails, slurs her words, drools, all without condescending or sensationalizing her character. The impression created and impressively sustained is of a woman eager to communicate, even when her body won't quite let her. But it's not fair to focus on any one actor here, when it all comes together so well—Telethon is an outstanding piece of ensemble theater, a funny, dark, and uncomfortable window into the demands, iniquities, and rewards of caregiving.