As John Belluso said, “[disability] is the one minority class of which anyone can become a member of at any time”. The same goes for parents of disabled children, as demonstrated in A Nervous Smile. Brian, Eileen and Nic did not plan to be to have a child with severe Cerebral Palsy. Brian dreamed of a “beautiful daughter, one who would run from young boys as they chased her, one who would dress in a ridiculous gown on her prom night, one who would fight furiously with him because she stayed out too late with her boyfriend.” Instead, he had Emily, who will use a wheelchair for the rest of her life, has frequent seizures and will probably never have a boyfriend, let alone a fight with her father about missing her curfew.
I was drawn to this play because am very close with a family in a similar situation; my uncle’s brother and his wife had two healthy girls two years apart and decided to try for a third. While Kathy was pregnant she had a fever resulting in complications that led to their third child, Nathan, being born with severe mental disabilities. Nathan does not have Cerebral Palsy, but his disability results in challenges very similar to Emily’s situation in the play. Both children use wheelchairs because they are unable to walk, and have stiff limbs and hands. Both Nathan and Emily cannot express themselves verbally, but Nathan’s mental capacity is probably closer to Nic’s son Dominic than to Emily’s. I have nannied full-time for their family for the last three summers, so I have spent a long time around Nathan and his family. It was so hard to take care of Nathan some days, especially the bad days were he would stiffen up when you tried to take him out of his wheelchair to change him making the task nearly impossible, or the day where he vomited all over the table at Subway, or when there’s no wheelchair access to a building and you have to ask for help to carry his 70lb wheelchair up the stairs. But at the end of a 1o hour day, I got to go home. It was my job, and I was being paid but I could also walk away at any time if it got to be too hard for me, and no one would blame me for it. The parents of disabled children do not have that freedom.
This is the virtual prison Brain, Eileen and Nic find themselves confined to in A Nervous Smile. They all suffer from “caretaker’s burnout, and don’t have the strength to carry on. Regardless of expectations from society, giving birth to a child with disabilities does not automatically make someone a better person. Parenting a disabled child does not automatically make someone more patient or compassionate or selfless. This play explores what it means when ordinary people, not heros, are expected to deal with extraordinarily difficult circumstances. In this case, they don’t do too well. But while we are disgusted by the choices of the three parents in this play, they are not villains. The strength of this play lies in the fact that they are human beings the audience can relate to. And while we might not agree with their actions, they are based off of understandable human emotions.
While both Emily and Dominic have Cerebral Palsy, their circumstances are different. Emily has access to more technologically advanced communication tools because her parents have the money to purchase them for her. Emily might use something like the ECO2, a communication device that would cost around $8,000, while Dominic uses picture board communication, which can be purchased for only 20 or 30 dollars. A Nervous Smile explores what it means for a disabled person when money can literally buy them a better voice and means of connecting with the people around them.
In this world, the adults use drugs and alcohol as tools to cope with their challenging situations. At the beginning of the play, Brian Eileen and Nic return from the funeral of a child from their Cerebral Palsy support group. They seem quite unaffected by the fact that they have just returned from a child’s funeral, but they did stop at a bar for lemon-drop martinis on the way home. Rather than feel the weight of the situation, they turn to mind-numbing substances. To get through the day, Eileen takes two to three Vicodin every morning with a double tall latte to “counteract the sedative effects”. Nic and Brian, on the other hand, use each other to escape. For a while, the excitement and endorphins prove to be enough to make them happy, but by the end we realize that they didn’t really know each other and were using their relationship as a distraction. In this world, vices provide temporary escapes, but prove to be not enough.
The only time we get to hear from Emily is at the opening and closing of the play. The first time we hear her words, they are through the synthesized voice of a voice-output communication board. The second reading of her poem we hear first in the voice of her voice-output device but then mutated into the voice of a little girl, and we realize that the entire time we’ve been watching this play the one person we’ve considered to be the most “disabled” really has the truest understanding of compassion and greatest capability of artistry of all.
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Some praise for “A Nervous Smile”:
“Provocative…meaty topics of immediate political and social currency…honest funny and compassionate.”
“Belluso’s dialogue is most compelling…because of his perspective, his empathy and obvious skill, Belluso’s is a name to remember.”
—San Diego Union-Tribune.
“Belluso understands that it’s not necessary to grapple directly with the headlines to comment on our greed-driven society.”
“Belluso’s play at Actors Theatre of Louisville brings a fresh, honest perspective and a surprising amount of humor to the emotionally difficult subject.”