Monday, August 20, 2007

this is not a play about child abuse

All Fall Down
by Wendy Lill

Hard to say. Interrogating children is a bit like chasing the shadows of butterflies. It can be that illusive. You're trying to find out if someone has caused them pain. But we all start collecting pain the minute we're born. All the physical hurts, the pain of abandonment, the assaults of noise and darkness. That's all layered in there too, interfering with the search.

As the title indicates, this is not a play about child abuse. Instead, All Fall Down is a play about hysteria and the ramifications of incorrect allegations of child sexual abuse. In the play, a loving day care worker, Annie Boland, is accused of sexually interfering with a four-year-old boy named Chad Brewer. But we never see Annie or Chad on-stage. Instead, though their voices are heard, this is a play about Chad's mother, Molly, and the parents of Chad's friend Rory, Emma and Ewan Grady, and the social worker who whips the town into a frenzy, Dr. Connors. The thrust of the play makes it clear from the beginning that Annie is innocent -- this isn't a mystery or a courtroom drama. This play works, instead, to illustrate the effects on parents in these situations and to show just how negative the wrong answers can be.

The roles in the play are clear. Molly is the accuser, Connors is the professional man who is supposed to fix everything, Ewan is the last stand-out against hysteria, and Emma is trapped -- she wants to believe that she is above the fear-mongering, like her husband, but can't shake the nagging doubts that such accusations plant in the mind. The fore-grounding of Ewan in the beginning of play and Emma at the end seems to suggest that though all of us watching might hope we could react like Ewan, we are all more likely to end up squarely in Emma territory. The question the play poses is this: is it even possible, in our current climate, to protect both the children involved and the adults accused? Can the truth remain safe?

There is no grey-area when it comes to the truth of the accusations. We are witnesses to the collapse of Molly's sanity, and we see her fabricate the allegations in order to have someone (a) listen to her and (b) blame someone else for her atrocious parenting. If she can blame Annie's hands for the fact that he son is out-of-control, she can find a place in the community again... And she can find a way for herself to deal with the reality that her son is closer to his daycare teacher than his own mother. The lies are fabricated to cover up exquisitely painful truths about her ability to mother her son, and they are sped along by Connors and his lack of understanding of the gentleness with which children's testimony must naturally be handled. As the children become more and more outrageous in their claims of abuse -- having discovered positive reinforcement for such harrowing claims -- the audience is left chilled as Connors does nothing to intervene. Even without a sympathetic portrait of Annie, the suggestions sound like the made-up play-lies of children in a one-up-man game (at one point, a little girl accuses Annie of making her pee on a peanut butter sandwich, and instead of laughing at the suggestion as play the community struggles to corroborate it). The audience is left disgusted by the inability of so many of the characters to find truth.

In the end, Ewan and Emma's marriage is ripped apart by the crisis, and the community doesn't find peace so much as it finds more people to accuse. This is our modern-day witch trial, and just as we didn't know how to protect the chastity of young girls and so flew to accusations of witchcraft, we now holler abuse in response to abnormal childhood development. The shaky conclusion of the play leaves no doubt in the reader's mind -- there is no positive conclusion to this situation.

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