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Theater Review

Dallas playwright's new show about difficulties of motherhood cuts deep

Dallas playwright's show about difficulties of motherhood cuts deep

Theatre Three presents Self-Injurious Behavior
Jessica Cavanagh stars in — and wrote — the play. Photo by Jeffrey Schmidt

They say to write what you know, and Dallas actor and playwright Jessica Cavanagh certainly knows motherhood. Specifically, what motherhood means when you have a child who is at the severe, sometimes violent, end of the autism spectrum.

Self Injurious Behavior is a raw, unflinching, based-on-true-events portrayal of Cavanagh unconditionally loving her son, Benjamin (played by sixth-grader Jude Segrest, who delivers specificity that belies his age), while struggling to admit that his harmful outbursts have become too much to safely handle. It's a glimpse into a world that many haven't experienced, but the script leans so heavily on the themes of family, bravery, and finding yourself that it becomes accessible to all.

Cavanagh, who here plays a fictionalized version of herself called Summer, is the last of the local artists that Theatre Three artistic director Jeffrey Schmidt has commissioned this season to produce new works in the basement Theatre Too space.

The show still needs a bit more tweaking, especially the abrupt ending, but overall it's a deep dive into both the darkest and brightest wells of human emotion. Director Marianne Galloway mostly handles the script's extreme shifts in time with grace, though at times the double casting does cause confusion for a few beats longer than it should. That's mainly with Ian Ferguson, who plays both Summer's musician ex-husband, Jake, and the kilt-wearing Lothario she meets at the Renaissance Faire — he doesn't get any wigs to help with the transitions.

Desiree Fultz and Madison Calhoun do, however, and both slide easily into their drastically different two roles (with extra kudos to costume designer Ryan D. Schaap). Fultz is first the kindly woman evaluating Benjamin for intake at the facility where he'll receive 'round-the-clock care, and then she's a feisty lesbian whose mom instincts compel her to bring plenty of munchies and whiskey for the Rennies. Calhoun pushes all the right buttons as Libby, Jake's smug new wife, then exists mostly as a pretty prop called Ashley, an amateaur bellydancer who reminds the other women what it's like to be young, skinny, and pretty.

One of the show's best moments is when Summer's sister Harmony (there's also one named Sage — it's a joke that doesn't really go anywhere) suddenly appears clad in a floor-length cloak. She sweeps in right as Summer is about to lose it, fed up with a blame-throwing husband who's always on tour and a son whom she can't fully reach. It's a sight gag that does go somewhere, as prim baby sister Harmony (Danielle Pickard, a standout in a universally strong cast) endures with exasperation the newbie ribbing for actually wearing her garb to the Faire.

The sisters bring Summer to a Renaissance Faire in the Pacific Northwest, hoping that the chance to escape into another persona will help get her mind off Benjamin's new living situation. While Jennifer Kuenzer is a delight as the wheels-off Sage, her character exists ... mainly to remind you that she is wheels-off. Oh, and she's the supplier of a vape pen stocked with pot ("why does your weed taste like waffles?" is one laugh-out-loud line), which Summer is overjoyed to receive.

At nearly two-and-a-half hours, the show could use some tightening before its next production. But the heart is there, sometimes padded in goofy comedy, sometimes laid bare in uncomfortable honesty, but all the while beating with a fierce and admirable love.

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Theatre Three's production of Self Injurious Behavior runs through June 10.