Bernie and Mikey’s Trip to the Moon, playing through December 2nd with the Strangemen Theatre Company at 59E59 Theaters, is the first full-length play by Scott Aiello. A note from Artistic Director Val Day mentions that the play is inspired by Aiello’s relationship with his sister, who has a disability. The story’s roots in personal experience is hardly surprising, because the play’s scope of understanding of the particular struggles and joys affected by disability is rarely found in fiction.
The play is a simple slice-of-life story about the Vincolos, a working-class Italian-American family with two adult children, Mikey (Forrest Malloy) and Bernadette, called “Bernie” (Stephanie Gould). Bernie has an intellectual disability, and her parents’ and brother’s lives center around ensuring her care and well-being. This is a familiar note in stories that center on disability, but what makes Bernie and Mikey special is the level of detail it explores in addressing the hard questions that arise when a person with a cognitive disability becomes an adult in the eyes of the law. What will happen to Bernie when her parents (Jordan Lage and Margo Singaliese) pass away? Is Mikey prepared for dealing with the hygiene needs of a disabled adult woman who menstruates and needs help wiping herself after a bowel movement? How do they cope with the knowledge that, despite some of her childlike behaviors and limitations, Bernie has the full scope of adult feelings, including sexual desires?
The play addresses these issues without being didactic, showing how each member of the Vincolo family keeps Bernie’s best interests paramount, but clash over what those best interests are. They argue, they hurl accusations, they work through their pain against an impeccable set design by James Ortiz that feels like a real home down to every small detail, including the stickers decorating the side of the oven.
While the whole family lives and loves and struggles, the most important relationship in the play is between the two title characters. Forrest Malloy is excellent at showing Mikey’s deep, fierce love for his sister, his anger at being left out of the decisions involving her well-being, and his resentment and accompanying sense of guilt. Stephanie Gould, who has cerebral palsy, inhabits Bernie as a woman who adores her brother unconditionally, shrugs off her mother’s nagging, and keeps an icier front with a father who often leaves her out of the conversation. They light up in each other’s presence the way they don’t with other people, and when Mikey pulls out all of the stops to make Bernie laugh, we can see that he needs her as much as she needs him.
Bernie and Mikey’s Trip to the Moon reminds us of the importance of letting actors with disabilities play disabled characters. Having Stephanie Gould play Bernie and Benjamin Rosloff (an actor on the autism spectrum) play Jeff, Bernie’s persistent suitor, leaves no room for caricature or stereotypes. The play, from the writing to the direction to the performances, treats people with disabilities respectfully without preaching from a pulpit. This important and moving show has only one weekend left in its run, but I predict bright prospects for its future.
Bernie and Mikey’s Trip to the Moon is playing at 59E59 Theaters through December 2nd.