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Autism and romance mix in live-via-Internet 'On the Spectrum'

November 14, 2011 |  9:00 am

Skyler Nowinski and Laura Robinson in On the Spectrum
"On the Spectrum,” a new play by veteran Los Angeles screenwriter Ken LaZebnik, will achieve two rarities for a live drama during its premiere run through Nov. 27 at Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis. It is a love story about two young people with autism, and its Nov. 22 performance, at 5 p.m. PST, will be accessible worldwide to anyone with a computer, streamed in live video over the Internet.

LaZebnik’s credits include co-writing the 2006 film, “Prairie Home Companion,” with Garrison Keillor, and scripting television episodes of “Star Trek: Enterprise” and “Touched By An Angel.”

His play’s title stems from autism disorders falling on a “spectrum” that ranges from the profound social and mental limitations that Dustin Hoffman portrayed in “Rain Man,” to people like Tim Page, who won the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for his classical music criticism in the Washington Post, is now a professor at USC, and wrote an acclaimed 2009 memoir, “Parallel Play: Growing Up With Undiagnosed Asperger’s.”

“On the Spectrum” concerns the love -– and friction –- between a young man who tries to disguise the fact he has Asperger’s syndrome, the mildest form of autism, and a young woman who, though facing more pronounced disabilities, is proud to be autistic.

LaZebnik said by email this week that having nephews and a niece with varying degrees of autism sparked his interest in dramatizing it. Jack Reuler, the Mixed Blood Theatre’s artistic director, is directing “On the Spectrum,” and LaZebnik said it was his idea to cast an actress who has autism as the female lead.

The playwright said he had sent his script to Laura Robinson, who is autistic and recently earned a degree in animation from Loyola Marymount University, “just to get her response and make sure it seemed authentic.”  She was enthusiastic, and it occurred to LaZebnik that Robinson might be able to play the part. She read for Reuler in June, “and he cast her on the spot.”

LaZebnik said multiple cameras will be deployed for the Internet broadcast to avoid the stasis of a single viewpoint and, he hopes, provide close-ups.

“On the Spectrum” is playing in repertory with two other plays about people with disabilities, billed as the Center of the Margins festival.

“Gruesome Playground Injuries,” by Rajiv Joseph (“Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo”), is being directed by the playwright, who has cast two deaf actresses performing in American Sign Language for his play about people bonding over physical and psychic wounds they’ve incurred since childhood. “My Secret Language of Wishes,” by Cori Thomas (winner of this year's M. Elizabeth Osborn Award for emerging playwrights), concerns a custody battle over a teenager with cerebral palsy.


Book review: `Parallel Play: Growing Up With Undiagnosed Asperger's'

'Judy Moody' has the benefit of exceptional minds

Still waiting for a great film on autism

-- Mike Boehm

Photo: Skyler Nowinski and Laura Robinson in the autism play `On the Spectrum.' Credit: Rich Ryan/Mixed Blood Theatre