PORTLAND — Expectant parents hope their little bundles of joy are born healthy, with all of their proverbial fingers and toes. But what if they aren’t?

The Dramatic Repertory Company’s “A Nervous Smile” provides an up-close-and-personal look at the emotional and monetary drain that can come with raising children with disabilities.

Award-winning playwright John Belluso knew first-hand the challenges, from the point of view of the child. He had used a wheelchair since age 13 because he had Camurati-Engelmann disease, a rare bone disorder that limits muscle strength.  Belluso died in 2006, at the age of 36.

Drawing from his life experiences, Belluso crafted provocative plays that challenge how society perceives people with disabilities. And he did so with brutal honesty and sharp-tongued wit.

In “A Nervous Smile,” a college professor, Brian (Paul Drinan), and his well-to-do wife, Eileen (Laura Graham), are the parents of Emily (Holly Hinchliffe), a teenage girl with cerebral palsy. Their friend Nic (Molly W. Bryant Roberts), a divorced lawyer, is the sole caregiver and supporter of her 18-year-old son, who also has cerebral palsy. All are at their breaking point as the play opens.

The three have just returned from a funeral for the 14-year-old son of parents from their cerebral palsy support group. They stopped for drinks on the way home and are quite tipsy when they arrive at Brian and Eileen’s place on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

The scene quickly unfolds to reveal a seemingly secret love affair between Brian and Nic. Both are desperate to find escape from and solace for their overwhelming roles as parents to severely disabled children. The affair is the first of many moral dilemmas posed in the play. And it pales greatly in comparison to the unthinkable proposition that follows on its heels.

The three-act, hour-and-a-half play is performed without an intermission, allowing the emotion of the production to build without interruption. In doing so, it forces the audience to remain in the moment, providing insight into the characters’ emotional well-being.

You could have heard a pin drop much of the performance Friday. Bursts of laughter punctuated the silence in response to the dark humor of the situation. But otherwise, the audience watched in rapt silence as Drinan, Graham and Bryant Roberts performed their emotionally draining roles.

Jackie Oliveri added humor and humanity as Blanka, a Russian immigrant employed by Brian and Eileen as their housekeeper and caregiver for Emily.   

The ideas that Belluso proposes in “A Nervous Smile” are likely to make you nervously squirm in your seat.  After all, most of us would like to think we’d act nobly when faced with the challenges in the play.  However, until actually confronted with a similar situation, none of us really knows how we’d react, and ultimately what morally questionable decisions we might make.      

April Boyle is a freelance writer from Casco. She can be contacted at:

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