By BRUCE DENNILL
Odd Man Out / Directed by Megan Willson / Auto & General Theatre On The Square, Sandton, Johannesburg
In Odd Man Out, Australian playwright David Williamson tackles a potentially touchy subject – autism – in away that is not only funny and moving but which also encourages audiences to be better at dealing with individuals they find discomfiting (the “odd man out” in any situation) rather than making the condition or disability exhibited the centre of the narrative.
It’s an approach that makes the play even more than the sum of its considerable parts – a fine achievement given the formidable cast and crew involved in this production.
Director Megan Willson ensures superb pacing, keeping her cast on their toes and the audience permanently engaged – something you notice most when coming out of the theatre after the better part of two hours with no real sense of that much time having passed.
The piece is anchored by the excellent Ashleigh Harvey as Alice, a more-or-less everywoman character, but one who has higher than usual reservoirs of compassion and gentleness. Harvey is hardly offstage at all, providing narration and asides directly to the audience as well as interacting with her colleagues as Alice. As well as maintaining that framework, Harvey’s handling of dramatic minutia is sublime. In particular, her capacity to reveal emotion without movement or obvious expression change is extraordinary.
Daniel Janks makes another welcome stage appearance (he is perhaps more often seen on television screens in various roles) and gives a performance here that underlines his prodigious talent in this context. His Ryan – a high-functioning Autism Spectrum Disorder sufferer who has a prodigious intellect but many socially inappropriate tics of which he is genuinely unaware – is completely convincing thanks to Janks’ carefully observed consistency. He combines a range of small movements with terseness of speech and palpable but unspoken awkwardness in company without ever making it seem like any of these elements is included for effect (which they aren’t – precisely the point) and gives his character a real likeability even as it becomes clear that getting close to Ryan is a difficult and challenging exercise.
The developing love story between Alice and Ryan is sensitively, authentically handled, with the script never shying away from the trials such a relationship would include, but also incorporating brief, blink-and-you-miss-them exchanges between the pair (often when in company) that confirm the strong connection they have, even if that connection is not understood by others in their lives. Strong stage chemistry between Harvey and Janks, communicated in private giggles as well as more physical grapplings, helps in delineating their private world from that of the others onstage.
That circle of friends and relatives includes Carla (a brassy but rather superficial friend of Alice’s, who has an even more shallow boyfriend named Evan), Emily (Ryan’s elderly mother) and Polly and Gary, Alice’s well-meaning but rather tactless parents. Michele Levin and Russel Savadier play all of these parts between them, juggling the relative levels of cruelty of these characters with a finesse that implies both the difficulty of trying to respond with any sort of understanding or kindness to an autistic individual and the general (the characters and the audience) rate of failure in this regard.
Denis Hutchinson’s set is deceptively simple, initially looking like a half-completed game of some old Atari-era brick-breaking challenge, but revealing several startling, cleverly concealed details that help drive the plot forward and further communicate the emotions in play.
Odd Man Out functions well as a comedy, but it is much more than that – a social study, an education, a thought-provoking drama – and it is the combination of all of these that both haunts and stimulates as you leave the theatre, arguably better-equipped to not be as blasé about others as you were when you went in.