Sometimes we overlook our local high school as venues for compelling theatre and once again West Springfield High School did not disappoint. Last night I saw “Nerdicus (My Brother With Autism)” and I left the auditorium wanting to see more of this thirty minute, one act original play written by Bernie DeLeo – the Drama Teacher at West Springfield.
“Nerdicus (My Brother With Autism)” premiered last night as part of West Springfield High School’s annual Winter One-Acts festival. I have had the privilege of working with a few national disability advocacy groups – like the National Down Syndrome Society (NDSS) and Autism Speaks – over the last few years to promote some legislation on Capitol Hill and what I saw last night reminded me of the countless stories I have heard from these families over the years. While Nerdicus alludes to – as best as you can in a 30-minute act – some of the challenges that a family, and particularly, a sibling, might encounter in day-to-day interactions with a brother with Autism, the one act captured the other side of life in such a home. In this short one act, the cast drew me into the love, respect, and humor of daily life in the Miller home.
The play, written by Bernie DeLeo, is 90% autobiographical. The play stars senior Austin Morrison as Eddie Miller, based very much on Mr. DeLeo’s own son Charlie. Bernie stated that “Austin is on the autism spectrum and he been taking drama classes since middle school. I’d cast him in all of the plays last year because drama had been an appropriate social outlet for my son – and I was determined to include Austin to give him that opportunity as well. It’s Austin’s senior year now, and he’d never had a lead – so I wanted him to go out with a bang. He’s very similar to my own son in many regards, and he’s doing a terrifically funny job. There’s a movement these days to cast people with disabilities in roles that require characters to have disabilities; as a parent of a child with a documented disability, I decided I need to put my money where my mouth
was – and I’m so proud of Austin.”
Mr. DeLeo is the father of a teenaged boy with Asperger’s Syndrome. And his one act is really about his daughter Sophie, who is two years younger than Charlie and attended high school with her brother. The play examines how having a sibling with a disability affects the other sibling who does not. Mr. DeLeo stated that his son “had some pretty eccentric behaviors that drove his sister, a typical, easily-embarrassed high school girl, crazy.” Many of the scenes on stage come right from the DeLeo home – such as when Charlie, obsessed with Greek and Roman history, showed up at the bus stop one morning wearing his ‘Nerdicus’ armor having an imaginary battle with the Visigoths.
Last January, the West Springfield Drama Department staged a one-act play about autism – and
won the Virginia High School League district, regional and AAA state drama championships with it. The Other Room by Ariadne Blayde is about Austin, a teenaged boy with high-functioning autism who tries to connect with a fellow classmate – but the voices in his head, presented on stage by warring actors, doom that budding relationship.
“But something nagged at me every time I watched the play,” confessed DeLeo. “Sure, I loved that people gasped and cried at the end of the play – that’s what you want as a director, for the play to evoke a visceral, emotional response from the audience. But it left people with the feeling ultimately that to live with autism is a sad and tragic thing – whereas in my experience, it has been anything but that. It’s not without challenges, but more often than not, life with my son Charlie is quite funny.” And so, in the summer months of 2013, DeLeo sat down to write a comic version of a teenaged life with autism.
Nerdicus is not unique. The passion and amazing talent found at our local high schools, and the dedication of the actors, directors, and stage crews, is something that can be found at countless high schools in our communities. Finding compelling theatre just down the street at our local high school has been one of the many joys of being involved in the West Springfield High School theatre department. I hope you have the chance to check it out yourself – it might just move you as it has moved me!
One acts run again tonight (January 31, 2014) at WSHS from 7:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. in the Auditorium at Door 6 (6100 Rolling Road in Springfield, VA). Tickets are $10 and available at the door. On Saturday, Nerdicus kicks off the VHSL Patriot District one-act competition at Lake Braddock High School (9200 Burke Lake Road, Auditorium – Door 14, Burke, VA). at 10:00 a.m. Admission is free, and all plays are open to the general public.
The one act NERDICUS marches on! The play was the 1st place runners-up last weekend and on Saturday, February 8, the play heads to the Regional Round at Lake Braddock High School at 3:30 PM. So, it you missed it last week, want to see it again, or help Autism Awareness, come on out to support these amazing actors and share this great news with your friends and family.
Photo credits: Catherine Ariale