GULFPORT — Steven Brodnick towers over the boy and girl playing his children, and everyone else. He has a kindly air as he speaks to them in French and smiles, inhabiting a character much more assured than reality allows him to be.
Steven plays Emile de Becque in this production of South Pacific. ProjectFREE's RizingSTARZ Theater Group, which caters to adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, opens the show Friday at the Catherine A. Hickman Theater in Gulfport.
Steven, 28, has a type of autism spectrum disorder formerly classified as Asperger's Syndrome. Others in the cast of 30 have Down syndrome or cerebral palsy. All are pushed hard. The play is one of the largest such endeavors this area has ever seen.
"Lines, lines, lines," director Corinne Broskette tells the cast during a break.
Steven loves acting. He never had a problem with lines. The part is what stretches him.
"He's more confident than me," Steven says, smiling and looking away. On stage, he doesn't try to draw on his own experience to tap into a character, a kind of emotional ventriloquism known as method acting.
"You become the person," he says.
"Places," the director barks. It's time to go back on.
• • •
Steven was born in Clearwater to Greg Brodnick, who owns a wholesale picture frame manufacturing company, and his wife Debra, a nurse. At 3, he was not speaking. A pediatrician diagnosed autism.
That diagnosis was later refined to Asperger's. While some symptoms overlap, people with Asperger's may feel awkward socially. They may display average or above-average intelligence, and have trouble learning in a traditional settings. In 2013, the American Psychiatric Association dropped Asperger's as a separate diagnosis, grouping it with several manifestations of autism.
At school, an aide accompanied Steven from second through eighth grade. He read so slowly, it was hard to make sense of sentences. But he had a first-rate memory. He absorbed textbooks his parents read aloud.
At home, he watched movies, mostly superheroes and monsters. He has seen Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Werewolf, and An American Werewolf in London dozens of times. He could recite long passages of dialogue.
"The dual personality thing — and even the werewolf phenomenon where you're a regular person and then you're something else — he's very enamored with that," his father says.
He grew into a 6'4" Clearwater High student who couldn't get enough of drama. He was also a good dancer who enjoyed singing.
"Steven has no fear at all," says Greg Brodnick, 65. "He will get up there and sing. Me, if there's two people there I'm pretty much buttoned up."
His father can't remember Steven having friends in school. He auditioned for community theater after high school but couldn't get a part. Directors only saw his trouble reading scripts. They didn't know about his memory.
"They thought he was slow," Broskette said.
In 2013, Steven auditioned for the lead role in Over the River and Through the Woods, a family melodrama. The director called Broskette, who had met Steven when he was in high school and studied with him for years.
"Tell me about Steven," the director said.
Between stammering stops and starts in the reading, he seemed to be getting it.
Steven won the role of Nick, an emotionally wrought young man who has a panic attack in the second act. During a performance, Broskette watched as Steven displayed more emotion than she had ever seen from him, even collapsing on stage.
Alarmed, she asked after the show if he was okay.
"Corinne," he told her. "I was acting."
• • •
Steven fixates on things others brush aside. An evangelist predicted five months of earthquakes, fire and floods, culminating in the end of the world Oct. 21, 2011.
"I can't remember the guy's name," his father says.
Steven can. "Harold Camping."
He couldn't stop thinking about it. The Mayan calendar ended the next year, setting off more anxiety.
He sits behind the counter at Florida Frames, his father's company where he works, going through plastic packets of tiny screws. Cataloguing screws can get tedious. For a while he fought the boredom with a felt-tipped pen, turning zeroes on labels into faces.
He talks about rehearsing Emile's French accent by watching Maurice Chevalier on YouTube. "Zee 'H' is si-LENT," he says.
He theorizes about The Three Stooges. "Moe was the brain, Curly was the heart, and Larry was the body, I guess."
Then somehow, he starts in on Abbott and Costello's, "Who's on first?" dialogue.
His voice rises and falls. His gestures become firm and expansive, reflecting exasperation.
All I'm trying to find out is, what's the guy's name on first base? No, no, no, no, What's on second base. I'm not asking you who's on second! Who's on first?
"It's time to go," his father says after five minutes. Soon they are in the SUV, headed to dress rehearsal.
The star of South Pacific looks dapper in the yellow Hawaiian shirt. He sings in an uninhibited style, closing out the show.
In the Catherine Hickman lobby, he is shaking. He says it's tension of the backstage bustle with 30 people. But it's also the high of performance.
"To be able to do this in front of an audience would probably make you feel a little energized," Steven says, a quaver in his voice. "Like you could just keep going and going and going."
Contact Andrew Meacham at email@example.com or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.