Sunday, February 27, 2011

Wisconsin teen with Asperger's finds his place in theater

From Laurel Walker in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel:

When Judy Smith was looking for someone to play the central role of stage manager in "Our Town," the classic Thornton Wilder play about life in small-town America, she wasn't expecting to cast a boy with Asperger's syndrome.

Yet when 14-year-old Clayton Mortl (pictured) auditioned more than six weeks ago, Smith said she experienced a director's "quintessential moment." He was perfect for the role.

Legendary actors like Paul Newman have brought powerful performances to the play - a staple of Broadway, community theater and classrooms since its 1938 debut, said Smith, the performing arts center manager and theater arts adviser at New Berlin West Middle / High School.

But when the 18-member middle school cast takes the stage Thursday, at 10 a.m. and 7 p.m., Clay's performance may be legendary in its own right.

Though everyone is different, people with Asperger's - an autism spectrum disorder - have impaired ability to socially interact and communicate nonverbally. Their speech may sound different because of inflection or abnormal repetition. Body movements may not seem age appropriate. Interests may be narrowly focused to the extent that common interests aren't shared.

As I listened to Clay rehearse this week, I understood Smith's enthusiasm. Tall and lanky, he sported a fedora and spoke with a deep, Edward R. Murrow-esque voice.

"He owns the ability to describe the simplest of the town's characteristics in a manner which is both rhetoric and symbolic," Smith said. The rhythmic delivery is part of his disorder, she said, but, "you want to listen to him."

As many in the cast still struggled with lines they hadn't yet memorized just a week from opening, Clay did better than most at Thursday's rehearsal. He said memorizing his large part - the largest, by far - was what made him nervous.

"It's a bit of pressure," he told me after one rehearsal. It was an understatement.

But he seems to be glad he's a part of it. Other cast members treat him with respect, Smith said, "and I'm tickled for him."

"It's a good play," Clay said.

When I asked him to describe what it was about, he could have been explaining his own challenges.

"It's about life in America, and it can go wrong sometimes," he said. "But you still have to live with it."

To know what a challenge Clay is undertaking in this demanding role, you have to know where Clay has been.

Beth Mortl, Clay's mother, said he has gone to school full time only for the past year. Years of struggle before then while coming to grips with and controlling his disorder and physical ailments allowed for no more than part-time schooling at best, and several years of home schooling.

She said at age 2 he stopped talking and was insistently, repetitively doing things over and over, like running his hands along the floor molding. When she sought an explanation from doctors, he was labeled with severe autism, she said.

"We were told he'd never talk, he'd be institutionalized, that he was retarded," she said.

Clay and his parents have proved them wrong.

"I was one of those crazy moms that was on the Internet 24/7," she said. "I went to every conference."

She traveled to doctors around the country - and still does - for guidance and resources because she felt she had no help from local doctors.

She and her husband, Jim - they are now divorced - enlisted seven-day-a-week behavioral therapy for their only child. In addition to his brain dysfunction, he was debilitated with what eventually was identified as mitochondrial disease, where the material in cells that produces most of the body's energy fails.

Diet has since controlled that, and he's been thriving, though rest is important to his overall success.

He's intelligent and attends regular classes, for the most part. The school has been wonderful in helping him grow, Beth Mortl said.

Still, situations can be overwhelming. He wears earplugs to school to keep the noise down and eats his lunch in a small room because the school lunchroom is so loud, his mother said. Fatigue is always a danger.

Clay's father, Jim, said he can see his son get tired after long rehearsals that will only get longer, and he worries about that.

"I'm extremely happy, and very proud of him," he said. "I never expected this out of him, but he's pretty strong-minded."

When Clay announced the night before auditions that he intended to try out, Beth Mortl said she was stunned and a little fearful of whether he could handle it and stick with it.

"I want him to be involved," she said, "but then I don't."

Still, as she steps back and lets Clay fully participate, with support from the school and Smith, Beth feels certain that the social skills he's learning in this new experience is benefiting him.

The audience, too, I might add.

She's looking forward to his debut Thursday and marvels.

"We probably didn't leave the house for three years," she said, recalling those tough, tough years. "And now here he's going to be on stage."

"It's insanely crazy," she said. "I'm just so proud."