It's the journey, not the destination, as the old saying goes. As long as something is gained along the way, the end goal is largely irrelevant. This is the outlook Encore Studio embraces in Going to Temple, but the opposite seems to be true as well: Though there are some bumps in this production, the aim is both noble and relevant. The play runs through Feb. 9.
Going to Temple opens with an introduction to Amanda (Jennifer Scott), a young woman with autism and who's obsessed with autistic savant Temple Grandin. Though she needs to go to a job interview, she instead plans a trip to meet Grandin. She sees this voyage as her calling, not a wish. Amanda imagines becoming Grandin's protégé and roommate.
Luckily, Amanda has squirreled away a few grand to make her dream come true and has a very understanding sister (Madison theater veteran Heather Renken) to help. Renken gets the thankless job of providing the voice of reason during an increasingly bizarre trip to Grandin's home state of Colorado. The weirdness culminates in an open mic held at the venue of a canceled Grandin speech, complete with a rendition of "Break My Stride" that features Grandin-themed lyrics.
As usual, Encore's set design, multimedia elements and audio are inventive and make the most of the performance space. The jokes are often funny, and the timing is more hit than miss when Scott and Renken interact. But there are still some problem areas.
Odd yet charming interludes often give Encore productions a surreal touch, but their tone goes a bit off the rails in this production. When a restaurant's cook brandishes a butcher's knife in response to some mild criticism, the zaniness goes too far. Too often, scenes end with Amanda having a meltdown when she doesn't get her way. And while it's appropriate for the play to deal with Amanda's feelings of alienation, especially in relation to her mother and the mental health system, turning her sources of conflict into villains makes the story less realistic. Amanda's drunk, abusive mother is particularly monstrous. Her belittling tirade about Amanda's deceased father puts her in the ranks of Honey Boo-Boo's pageant mom and Krystal, Squidbillies' trainwreck of a mother figure.
Amanda doesn't find Grandin on her cross-country trek, but a chance meeting with a noted autism scholar helps her become a panelist at Grandin's next speaking engagement. Amanda returns to Madison triumphant, eager to finish her degree at the UW. She quickly gets her own apartment -- though it's never clear why she couldn't have done this earlier -- and still has enough money left to make her panel appearance. She also has a tender moment with her sister, reaffirming their bond with an embrace -- a blend of emotion and physicality that many people with autism can rarely offer.
I can't help but think that playwright and director KelsyAnne Schoenhaar could have let Amanda and her sister define "success." While the journey's supposed to be the true source of meaning, its ending seems too good to be true. Still, Going to Temple has lots of weird, satisfying stops along the way, despite the occasional pothole.