A heart-wrenching examination of the need for human connection in the midst of grief, the USC School of Dramatic Arts’ production of Mockingbird last weekend told the story of Caitlin — an 11-year-old girl with Asperger’s syndrome — trying to navigate the world after her older brother Devon is killed in a school shooting. Directed with subtlety by Andi Chapman (an actress who has appeared in Switched At Birth and Glee), Mockingbird features a winning ensemble of characters as well as the stunning and nuanced performance of Caitlin by sophomore theatre major Ashley Noel Long.
Mockingbird was adapted by Julie Jensen from Katherine Erskine’s National Book Award-winning novel of the same name. Though Caitlin’s Asperger’s diagnosis is made clear in the context of the book, it is never explicitly stated within the play. However, in the play, through a series of appointments with the school counselor Mrs. Brook (Anisha Jagannathan), the audience quickly comes to understand Caitlin’s ordeal: She has difficulty connecting facial expressions to feelings and has trouble figuring out why people act and say the things they do.
For Caitlin, it is a constant struggle to function in a world that is not always “black and white,” much less maintain meaningful relationships with her father and her classmates after Devon is killed.
Caitlin is the protagonist, but she is also the lens through which the world of the play is built as such, the entirety of the production rested upon Long’s shoulders.
For Long, her challenge was to carry the world of Mockingbird in her performance, and rise up to the challenge she did. Long’s performance was dynamite, to say the least: Her whole body involved in conveying Caitlin’s outbursts and breakdowns, as well as the more subtle mannerisms that characterize the life of a child with Asperger’s.
“I never wanted to do an impression on autism and Asperger’s syndrome … And thus, it was vital for me to connect with the core of Caitlin,” Long said in an interview with the Daily Trojan.
In preparing for her role, Long researched the autism spectrum through several different podcasts and articles, but always kept in mind the deeply personal nature of embodying Caitlin as a character, not just someone affected by a disorder.
“I needed to be present with her and speak the voice of the story,” Long said.
The actress believes herself to be a warm and amiable person, and so “one of the most challenging [aspects] of the role was removing the core assets of myself that make me who I am.” However, she said that “becoming consumed with understanding Caitlin’s beautiful mind allowed me to understand myself, humanity, and the world around me in a deeper, more understanding light.”
Part of making the play a product of Caitlin’s perspective is manipulating sound and visuals to make the world appear to be a scary place. A school bell may not seem jarring to someone without Asperger’s, but to Caitlin it is a jolting roar, and sound designer Stephen Jensen made sure the audience heard this, too.
The backdrop of the play, composed of tiled walls, were utilized by scenic designer Grace Wang to demonstrate what Caitlin is seeing inside her head: definitions of words memorized from the dictionary, droplets of color, flashes of Devon’s face.
No part of Mockingbird would’ve been complete without each other. From beginning to end, from the set design to sound to performance, the production was a masterful lesson in the importance of interpersonal connection — even and especially in a time of devastation.
“The community saves one another,” Long said about the characters in Mockingbird. “I believe that people are the best thing that can happen to one another, and I am inspired by this show’s generosity to teach a powerful lesson of understanding one another. The beauty of live theatre is that it allows an audience to understand this rare and beautiful lesson in such a short amount of time.”