‘It’s essential’: Hedgerow Theatre’s new play about autism stars an actor with autism

“The Puzzle” by Juliette Dunn is loosely based on her own non-verbal son. It stars a Philadelphia actor who is also on the autism spectrum.

Michael Stahler kneels onstage. Actors David Shriner and Daniel Passer look on behind him.

In Juliette Dunn's "The Puzzle, at Hedgerow Theatre Company," David Shiner (left) and Daniel Passer (right) portray two clowns whose efforts to solve a puzzle are disrupted by the arrival of The Boy (center), portrayed by Michael Stahler. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The world premiere of “The Puzzle” at the Hedgerow Theatre, near Media, Pa., never mentions autism directly. But playwright Juliette Dunn says it is plain to see.

“If you know anyone with autism who is non-speaking, you will recognize a lot of common behaviors,” she said.

Her nameless character, called The Boy, cannot express himself verbally. He does things like moan when frustrated, holds onto his ears, and plays with his fingers.

The Boy is played by Michael Stahler, who is also on the autism spectrum.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

“I am hyperlexic, meaning that I’m kind of the opposite of non-verbal. If anything, I talk too much,” Stahler said. “That’s been a privilege to be able to try, the best I can, to express myself through words.”

Michael Stahler acts onstage.
Actor Michael Stahler portrays The Boy, a character with autism in Juliette Dunn’s “The Puzzle” at Hedgerow Theatre. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Stahler has been seen on Philadelphia stages for the past few years with companies like Azuka Theatre (“Ship”), Walnut Street Theater (“Sherlock Holmes: The Speckled Band”) and Hedgerow’s “A Christmas Carol.” When he was a boy he used to have some of the same behaviors as The Boy, but he said years of classes and training have “corrected” those tics.

Now he has un-learned some of that training to get those instinctual behaviors back. He worked with Hedgrow’s choreographer Karen Getz to get the character’s gait just right.

“When I walk in the play, I mostly put my weight on the front of my foot. I make sure that my heels don’t touch the ground much,” he said. “My parents afterwards were saying, ‘That’s exactly how you used to run.’ Apparently when my parents would take me to tee-ball, they noticed that I ran very differently from the other kids. I only ran on my toes. I had totally forgotten about that.”

MIchael Stahler and Daniel Passer rehearse a scene onstage.
Michael Stahler (right), as The Boy, and Daniel Passer, as Finneas, rehearse a scene from “The Puzzle” at Hedgerow Theatre. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Dunn wrote “The Puzzle” a decade ago, and it’s now getting its first full production. She said Hedgerow is giving the play the treatment she always wanted: an actor who can bring his own autism to the role.

“It absolutely has to be someone who’s authentically autistic. The contributions that Michael has made — and the contributions that others have made, because we have others on the team who are autistic — it’s really important to us,” she said. “People with disabilities need to be represented authentically. I changed what seems small but very significant plot points. It’s essential.”

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor
Juliette Dunn and Michael Stahler sit at a table together.
Playwright Juliette Dunn shares notes with actor Michael Stahler, who portrays The Boy in the Hedgerow Theatre Company’s production of Dunn’s work, “The Puzzle.” (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The titular puzzle of the play is a jigsaw puzzle that two men are trying to assemble. They take it very seriously, and they seem to have been working on it for a very long time. The puzzle is a metaphor, one they cannot quite make sense of, but important nevertheless.

Dunn never explains what the puzzle really is.

“It’s that thing that you think you need to be happy,” she said. “It’s the thing that you think: ‘If I only have all this put together, then I can start living. Or, then I can be happy. Then I’ll be fulfilled. Then I’ll find peace.’”

Enter The Boy, who comes into the two men’s lives and disrupts their focus on the puzzle, shifting it onto something that might be ultimately more meaningful. That shift is not easy, leading to an emotionally explosive conclusion.

The tense conclusion notwithstanding, “The Puzzle” is largely a comedy. The character of The Boy is based on Dunn’s own adult son, who she says is mostly non-verbal.

Daniel Passer (Finneas), Michael Stahler (The Boy), and David Shiner (Quinton) rehearse a scene onstage.
Actors (from left) Daniel Passer (Finneas), Michael Stahler (The Boy), and David Shiner (Quinton), rehearse a scene from “The Puzzle” at Hedgerow Theatre. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“I wanted to write about these funny things that happened every day with him and his attempts to communicate, and my attempts to communicate with him,” she said. “Autistic individuals who are non-speaking are grossly underestimated and so often judged on what they present on the outside. What I found is they’re exquisitely intelligent and just don’t have a way of getting that out.”

As for Stahler, he doesn’t mind finding himself sliding into his old autistic habits.

“The thing that this show has taught me is that maybe a lot of these behaviors that I have spent years correcting, I didn’t need to have corrected in the first place,” he said. “A lot of these behaviors that I used to do have come back: hand flapping, covering my ears. I’ve done a lot of these things in my youth, but I pushed them out of me as I grew up. And now, talking with my roommate in South Philly, I’ll be flapping my hands out of instinct. I’m like, ‘Oh, no, it’s back.’”

“The Puzzle” will run at Hedgerow through June 4.

Get daily updates from WHYY News!

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal