By Shari Goldstein Stern
An autistic 11-year-old child, his overwhelmed mother, an insensitive musician father who “shows up” after re-marrying an intrusive, thin, young, and beautiful stepmom make for an interesting story. When the playwright has lived it, the play becomes brilliant theater.
“Self Injurious Behavior,” (SIB) now playing at Theatre Too through Sunday, June 10, is that kind of theater. At its core is Jessica Cavanagh, the playwright and principal actor, Summer. This could have been a sappy, disingenuous treatment, being cathartic for the playwright while entertaining the masses. However, Cavanagh rolled out her own story with sophistication and finesse. It feels genuine. It engages you with heart-wrenching content. Not to worry, though. It has its share of over-the-top comic relief from complex characters.
Playing Summer’s Autistic son, 11-year-old Benjamin, is up-and-coming actor Jude Segrest, who is a sixth grader at J.L. Long Middle School. This is his first professional play, but audience would not guess that he is new to the stage. This talented young actor brings theatergoers into the room. He engages the audience within the first five minutes. Cavanagh remarks that the new actor is, “Consistent, fearless, dependable, and he has a flair for improvisation.”
The 11-year-old’s real mom, Jeanne Segrest, says that Jude has taken acting classes at Dallas Children’s Theater since he was in the third grade. Conflict Choreographer Lydia Mackay choreographed his meltdown scene. He started working on it the second day of rehearsal. “It is a very deliberate process to ensure everyone is safe at all times,” his mother says. The young actor adds: “It’s wonderful being in this play. Everyone in the cast is great.”
Segrest also worked with Steph Garrett, his acting teacher at DCT, to get his mannerisms and speech patterns down to portray of a child with ASD accurately. Segrest could not have been more believable.
Steph works with children who have special needs and is an amazingly talented actor and teacher, Segrest’s mom says. “Outside of regular rehearsals, he and Steph worked countless hours for about a week before the play opened.”
The proud mother adds: “It’s really tough to watch because it is such an intense role. His acting interest has been completely self-directed. We are very happy to encourage him in this passion and are thankful he can be part of a performance that gives a voice to families who have children with ASD and the struggles they endure. The play is beautiful and brutal at the same time, like much of life.” Segrest has three siblings who are at Lakewood Elementary, IDEA and Woodrow Wilson High School.
Cavanagh says: “The character of Benjamin is based on my son, Elijah, who lives in a group home/residential training school in Louisiana and is thriving and happy there, thank goodness. When my ex-husband and I made the decision to admit him, it was the most excruciating thing I’ve ever gone through, but now, it’s absolutely clear that it was the right decision for him.”
“He’s a beautiful, loving 18-year-old, and once a month, I go pick him up and we stay overnight in a hotel and gorge on pizza and have a great time. I live for those visits,” she adds.
The show’s director is Marianne Galloway, whose name also rolls off the collective tongue of Dallas’ theater community and patrons as both an actor and director. Galloway says: “We’re grateful to Theatre Three for supporting this critical ‘workshop’ stage of the development process. Here, a new script has the weight of a full rehearsal process and performance schedule behind it to flesh out the script on its feet.”
Galloway adds: “You can discover [through workshops] where questions might be answered in staging, or by the environment of the set, or silently in a moment between actors … all things that can’t truly be explored in a staged reading.”
One of three sisters, Cavanagh as Summer is joined by Danielle Pickard as Harmony and Jennifer Kuenzer as Sage. The dynamics between the three are stories in themselves. From precocious to sensible to troubled, each has her own schtick. In the relationships petty squabbling gives way to full out daggers to love and support. They’re all present and feel authentic.
Rounding out the cast are Ian Ferguson as Jake and Sebastian, Desiree Fultz as Lynn and Gina, and Madison Calhoun as Libby and Ashley.
Jeffrey Schmidt, Theatre Three artistic director, says: “The show has lived in workshops and readings for several years now, so I don’t think any more are necessary. Sometimes you just need to let a play live as it is. My hope is that other theatres will produce it. I think it resonates with anyone who is a parent and/or caregiver.”
He continues: “Jessica’s skill and talent both as a performer and writer are beautifully showcased in this production. This is a great example of a Dallas artist telling a Dallas story that is compelling and universal. We’re more than just big hair, ranches and oil.”
SIB runs through Sunday, June 10 at Theatre Too, downstairs at Theatre Three, 2800 Routh Street in the Quadrangle.
For more information, visit theater3dallas.com or call 214-871-3300.