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Stacey Dinner-Levin

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My Minnesota: She put her family's autism story on stage

  • October 6, 2012 - 5:05 PM

It's probably an awkward moment when your wife says, "I'm writing a play about our family," and you remark, Well, I can play the dad. And she says, "Actually, no, you'll play our son."

Turned out well for Stacey Dinner-Levin, though.

She's a Minneapolis educator and author who wrote a play based on her family's experiences raising a child with autism, and saw it go from a side project to a nationwide experience.

Born in Duluth and a Twin Citian since she was 2, she puts her social work and human development degrees to work helping kids with special needs in the Edina school system. Back in 2005, she wrote a play titled "Autistic License."

"It's an autobiographical play about our family, about my son, who's 23 this week. I wrote it because parents with special-needs children can feel invisible. Or people say you must be a saint. You must have the patience of Job. No. We're flawed like everyone else.

"So I wanted to strip down the walls, let people see what it was like, the good, the bad, the ugly. It's not a Hallmark Hall of Fame piece, it doesn't have a happy ending. But it's not Greek tragedy, either."

It started out a small, local, one-shot production. It went from there to an extended run and a four-year statewide tour. And it's still going.

"It's been picked up in other parts of the country -- Rhode Island, Omaha, Texas -- it's taken on many incarnations," Stacey says.

But none are quite like the first, when her husband played the son.

"Who else knew his idiosyncrasies?" she laughs. "And then there's another actor on stage playing him, to make it even more unusual. When I wrote it, he said, 'Don't protect me.' His attitude was dads would come and see and think, 'Well, I'm not as a big of a jerk as he is.' Sometimes the biggest response is from the men. They come forward and say, 'This was me.'"

Stacey credits Minnesota for making it possible. "The theater community here is like nowhere else. People look out for each other; it's not every man for himself."

When it comes to special needs, "I think we're one of the best, always ahead of the curve. Minneapolis has had an autism program for 30 years. People were talking about this elsewhere back then. I've talked to parents in other cities, and I always tell them: Move."

She has three other boys, two of whom have theatrical inclinations; one just played Gilligan in a musical based on the TV show. Another play is in the works -- perhaps for one of them?

"It's a hard act to follow. You never write unless you have something to say. This had to happen, because of that feeling of being invisible."

The feeling's diminished, perhaps, for those who've seen her play. And not just parents are helped. Eventually, in one production, the son with autism appeared.

He played himself.

JAMES LILEKS

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