Upfront

Theatergoers flocked to the St. Louis Fringe Festival in June to see an hourlong musical about a support group for teens with Asperger's syndrome.

The play — "Asperger's: A High-functioning Musical" — is the brainchild of St. Louis psychologist Dean Rosen, PsyD, and his 34-year-old son Adam, a composer and writer who was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome in his early 20s.

In the play, six teens with Asperger's gather in a support group and share their experiences through songs that are alternately serious, funny, touching and sad, Dean Rosen says. One song, "The Littlest Thing," is a comedic look at all of the many things that annoy the characters. In another, "One of Them," a newly diagnosed young woman struggles to accept her diagnosis and questions whether she wants to belong to a stigmatized group.

The Rosens hope the play will help audiences gain a better understanding of Asperger's syndrome. A support group seemed like the perfect way to introduce them to the characters, the elder Rosen says. "Adam and I both understand support groups," he says. "And it works well as a theatrical concept" — especially in a play where characters are more important than plot.

The play is not the pair's first father-son artistic venture — they also co-wrote a musical about gay teens when Adam came out in high school. But this is their first play to make it to the stage. Dean Rosen and his son were responsible for finding a director and a cast — all on a shoestring budget of $1,500. "I didn't realize at first that submitting it to the fringe festival meant we produced it ourselves," Rosen says.

But the work was worth it. The play sold out its three-night run during the festival, and the Rosens and their director, Ed Reggi, planned to schedule an encore performance in late August. After that, Dean Rosen — who has a private practice in St. Louis — hopes to find grant support to bring the play to universities, schools and educational conventions.

"We see these issues — belonging, isolation — as being very specific to Asperger's, but also universal. And I think that makes for the best art," he says.

— Lea Winerman