SALT LAKE CITY — The image of the mockingbird lies significantly, but also subtly throughout the text of this play. Caitlin flits about the stage with magnificent energy, repeating and echoing the words and actions she has been taught to say. The chest, the “heart” of the piece, is center stage, covered by a white sheet that flaps about over the furnace heater, like the wings of a bird. Mockingbird not only flies over conventionality, but soars through the structures of society, and hits the heart of the matter in a unique and inspiring way.
Director Tracy Callahan has a true attachment to this piece. She initially workshopped this play over a year ago at Weber State University, where they worked the piece for over three months. From there, Tracy and playwright Julie Jensen produced the piece at the Kennedy Center, and now Mockingbird is currently playing at the Pygmalion Theatre Company. Callahan approaches this piece with a familiar feeling, and yet her choices are brave, theatrical, and vibrant. Callahan exposes the experience of sensory overload, but also the small experience of loneliness and frustration.
Julie Jensen has achieved the task of adapting the book, written by Katherine Erskine, into a living, breathing, and honest stage experience. One of the marvelous things that Jensen does in her writing is bringing a weight and importance to a character who is never seen on stage. Caitlin, an eleven year old girl, is somewhere on the autistic spectrum, and has always had an older brother to direct her and anchor her. But now that he has gone, Caitlin has to maneuver through life without the signs and signals from her brother. Autistic and motherless, the difficulties that Caitlin faces due to the loss of her brother, Devon is even more apparent.
Camrey Bagley, who plays Caitlin, researched her role tirelessly. Bagley watched videos and read articles, in order to give a fair representation to the marginalized group that she represents. Because she has been working on this role for so long she has learned how to copy and repeat aspects of autism so convincingly, that she has thoroughly embodied her role as the mockingbird. Inside the world of the play she has tools to help her overcome repetitive actions and behaviors, like the pictures of the emotions she is supposed to express. Ultimately, it is the memory of her brother, his gestures and sayings that help Caitlin to return, to function, to breathe.
An important element of this show is movement. This is a piece where the body of the ensemble is so important, as it brings a sense of community and of Caitlin being outside of the community. From Caitlin’s point of view her community is too loud, and they don’t listen, they don’t understand her. At one point Caitlin enters a panic attack or temper tantrum, she starts to count, and the ensemble lifts her into the air, in a quiet, beautiful image. Eventually, as Caitlin begins to understand the structure of her community, she starts to find common ground and moves from the outskirts more into the body. Her relationship with Michael (played by Austin Archer) is wonderful, and as it develops, Caitlin finds ways to join groups, and to “socialize.”
Set designer Thomas George uses color as a significant element in this production. Even though Caitlin wants to draw only in black and white, have structures, and routines, her world is in vibrant blocks of color. Caitlin expresses that colors are hard for her because they run into each other, and yet the lines on the stage floor, the blocks in her school and the images on the screen during school, are all in primary colors. While I’m not sure that the projected images onto a screen as part of the set really helped me to further understand Caitlin than the text, directing, and acting, it was certainly an interesting choice.
An engaging aspect in the representation of Caitlin, and her disability, is that it put the idea of what is considered “normal” on display. As the characters on stage deal with death through the use of social convention, Caitlin again and again comes back to the image of Devon’s heart, how it beat, and then it stopped beating, and what that means for her now. Caitlin cannot quite grasp that her brother is gone, because maybe for her death doesn’t work like that, maybe there is more of a lapse, and maybe it is OK to live in that lapse for a while.
Caitlin comes to some kind of resolution at the end of the play; I’m not quite sure what that resolution was because I was a mess by that point. Needless to say, somewhere between me and the stage, something profound happened, a something that I think you better go and experience for yourself.