Guards down. Thumbs up.

Ian Freeman, 17, has spent a lot of time alone in his living room lately, singing, spinning, and twirling in a conservative black tuxedo emboldened with a red velvet cummerbund and a matching red string tie. Is this a young man preparing to dazzle his classmates at a high school prom? No. (Quick confession: Years ago, this might have been me if you replaced the words “preparing to dazzle his classmates” with “hoping he won’t humiliate himself.”)
Rather, Ian is rehearsing the song he will perform at this week’s annual two-day showcase for entertainers with developmental disabilities and their friends, “Thumbs Up.” Ian has Downs syndrome, but that has never led him to shy away from the spotlight. As his mother Grace Freeman, an elementary schoolteacher, observes, “Ian was born extroverted. He works a crowd like there’s no tomorrow.”
This is as true in a pizza parlor as it is in a theater. There are few waitresses at Nicco’s Cocina I haven’t seen him charm.
“Thumbs Up,” the brainchild of the Catalyst Theatre’s Veronica Lopez, is now in its eleventh season. The inspiration for the show was Lopez’s sister, BeBe, now 43. BeBe, like Ian, has Downs syndrome, but loves to perform. The show was christened “Thumbs Up” because BeBe would cheer even her gutter balls while bowling.
In past years, I have watched Ian walk the boards in a variety of Broadway guises during the show. He has done an uncannily accurate imitation of the Elvis Presley-like pharaoh from “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat;” the regal and imposing monarch from “The King and I;” and, most recently, the handsome and charismatic prince from “Cinderella.” This coming Thursday and Friday at the University of Vermont’s Royall Tyler Theatre, he will be the Cat in the Hat from “Seussical” hence the tuxedo.
And, once again, he won’t be alone. Rachel Wollum, 17, who also has Downs syndrome, will be singing “Not for the Life of Me” from “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” with choreography she created herself. (Rachel’s mother, Nancy Wollum, is the founder of Addison County’s Can Do Dancers, a dance troupe of adults with developmental disabilities.) There will be Emily Anderson’s inspired — and inspiring — Awareness Theater Company, hip hop dancers, poets, pianists, and the always amazing Joel Bertelson with a new piece he has written, “How Junk Food Saved My Life.”
I don’t know most of these performers any more than I know the vast majority of the actors who grace the stages at the University of Vermont or the Flynn Center. But I do know Ian. He is the only person on the planet with whom I will sing (always in the safe confines of my car as we drive to the movies or Nicco’s Cocina) because he is the only completely nonjudgmental person I have ever met. There is no such thing as off-key when you sing with Ian: It’s all good.
Likewise, there is no stinging sarcasm in Ian’s world. Or cutthroat competition. Or mean-spirited schadenfreude. I don’t doubt there is unhappiness: None of us are exempt from those dark days of the soul, none of us goes through life exempt from disappointment. But if you are Ian Freeman — or Rachel or Joel — I don’t believe it ever crosses your mind that there is something to be gained from someone else’s failure.
Ian remains one of the few teenage boys on the planet who hug the way most people wave. He embraces you — literally and metaphorically — as soon as he meets you. And that is, perhaps, why Ian is fun to be around. When you’re with Ian, you let down your guard and lose all pretension. In some ways, I may actually be a better person around him: More patient. More tolerant. More willing to sing in the car.
The irony, of course, is that much of the world is mighty uncomfortable around people like Ian, and put their guards way up. That’s why Lopez cherishes “Thumbs Up.”
“The audience leaves the theater with a different take on the world. They tell me they’ve never known people like this before, and they relate to the pure joy of performers who are creative and live entirely in the moment,” she says.
And, best of all, they get to see what makes a kid like Ian so … special.
(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on May 28, 2006.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.