off the WALL’s production of Scared of Sarah is introspective, intimate and intense. At Carnegie Stage, an open theater with less than one- hundred seats, the audience sits just a few feet away from the stylishly decorated apartment of Sam and Lily. The play opens following Lily’s announcement to her husband that she is pregnant. Sam, a young law student with concrete plans about his future, is not initially receptive to the idea. The ‘what if’s’ spill from his lips; questions revolving around finances and the logistics of strollers on the subway consume his thoughts, but with Lily’s encouragement, they decide to be happy about the baby, to grow up and to accept that not everything in life happens the way it is imagined. Sam, played by Shaun Cameron Hill is the loving husband. He is playful, a good listener and attentive; a likable character. Erika Cuenca, as Lily, is Sam’s rock. She guides and encourages him to stay in law school and to believe he will be a good father. Together they make a well balanced team.
Sarah, Lily’s older sister, is difficult. She is 30 years old and has Fragile X Syndrome. She inhabits the typical physical and emotional behaviors associated with people on the ‘spectrum’ who appear “normal” on the outside but harbor characteristics, such as lack of empathy, limited verbal communication and misinterpretation of social cues. Sarah and Lily were never close but now that their father is deceased, Lily feels a certain obligation toward caring for Sarah. The sisterly relationship is volatile and it doesn’t take much to set either woman off and their arguments escalate quickly. Sarah, played by Sarah Silk, is incensed over minor issues; it is the littlest things, nonmatching plates at the dinner table, which can cause her to make a scene. Lily intellectually understands Sarah’s behavior, but cannot accept her for who she is. Then Lily finds her mother’s old journals. As she reads, she uncovers the truth behind why her mother abandoned the family so many years before. This triggers a host of mental and emotional problems for Lily as she agonizes over the possibility of having a baby with the same chromosomal mutation as her sister. She fears a situation like that could put her marriage in jeopardy.
Director Ingrid Sonnichsen challenges Silk to reach dramatic brilliance. Silk moves across the stage in a naturally awkward way. Her small struts and perfect posture reflect the mannerisms of someone not weighted down by life. Her tantrums are simultaneously bone chilling and heart wrenching. Sarah is behaves the only way she can and as a witness, it is alarming. Silk brings Sarah’s character to life in ways that not only frighten Lily, but conjure awe from the audience.
In Scared of Sarah, Playwright Laura Brienza brings to the surface a slice of life. This segment may not be sweet but it depicts a struggle that does not always have a cut and dry solution. The realism of Scared of Sarah makes the play tough to swallow at times, but the powerhouse cast drive home a subtle familiarity. The passion packed into each character stretches beyond the dialogue and races far ahead of Sonnichsen’s direction. Sam and Lily crave survival. With directorial support from Sonnichsen and a flawless amalgamation of cast chemistry, Hall and Cuenca’s theatrical outbursts, mental breakdowns and excruciatingly personal moments are so emotionally charged it can be painful to watch.
The beautiful thing about this play is not just the raising of awareness for hidden disabilities but a lesson in perseverance and unconditional love. It is refreshing to see a play that encompasses the tough issues; disabilities, genetic counseling, depression and abortion but doesn’t shove any particular dogma down the audiences’ throat. Together Hall, Silk and Cuenca’s performance give praise to the art of life.
Special thanks to off the WALL for complimentary press tickets. Scared of Sarah WALL runs at Carnegie Stage through December 19. For tickets and more information, check out their website.