Amy Brenneman
Amy Brenneman
Cape Cod Times

TV-film actress Amy Brenneman, 'The Leftovers,'
on Cape Cod for play about neurodivergence

By Kathi Scrizzi Driscoll/Contributing Writer Cape Cod Times | March 6, 2024
Film/TV actress Amy Brenneman, left, and her daughter, Charlotte, appear together in "Overcome," a play about learning to live with and appreciate neurodivergence.
Film/TV actress Amy Brenneman, left, and her daughter, Charlotte, appear together in "Overcome," a play about learning to live with and appreciate neurodivergence.


Photos: Steve Heaslip/Cape Cod Times

COTUIT ― TV and film actress Amy Brenneman sits on the stage at Cotuit Center for the Arts playing, well, herself.

The herself of 10 and 20 years ago, as a bewildered parent of a special-needs child, trying to navigate what that meant for her and her family.

In rehearsal, she sits with Cape Cod actors playing other parents in a support group discussing services, incidents, small steps forward. Brenneman says she’s not sure she belongs there.

“It isn’t like she has some big-time disability,” her past self protests naively about neurodivergent daughter Charlotte, sure there’s a quick fix to catch up to her peers.

This is “Overcome,” a powerful story Brenneman will tell at a March 8 show for parents from Sandwich’s Riverview School plus two sold-out March 9 performances. It’s about how redefining “normal” changed her family’s lives. And about how Brenneman learned to become her daughter’s ally.

“It’s about a person going from ignorance to knowledge and acceptance,” Brenneman said in an interview.

It’s the third autobiographical theater piece she and co-conceiver/director Sabrina Peck have created about challenges in Brenneman’s life as a way not only to work through those herself but to show people they are not alone. Brenneman brings that story to Cotuit — during a break in filming her latest TV show — because the Cape has become home for Charlotte, now 22, and the center itself her artistic haven.

Brenneman is best known for TV’s “Judging Amy,” “Private Practice,” “The Leftovers,” and FX’s current “The Old Man,” with Jeff Bridges and John Lithgow. She’s acted for decades in films and on professional stages near Los Angeles (her family’s home base) and elsewhere.

Friends and collaborators since Harvard University, Brenneman and Peck developed “Overcome” in 2016 at The Yard in Chilmark, near the Martha’s Vineyard home Brenneman shares with husband and TV/movie producer/director Brad Silberling, Charlotte, and son Bodhi. A reworked “Overcome” debuted there in 2019, but the pandemic derailed 2020 production plans at South Coast Repertory in California.

Brenneman rewrote the piece in 2020. “Overcome” uses acting, movement, video, sound and music, featuring a Cape cast and backstage crew with Yard dancers, to marry theater and personal narrative.

A scene important to Brenneman is when she confronts Dominant Culture — representing the “fit in” thinking of her mother’s generation — saying, “You made it hard for me to love my daughter. I don’t want to talk to you anymore.”

“That’s really the bottom line. I wasn’t free to do the most natural thing, which is to love and support my daughter,” Brenneman says. “She was tantruming and it was hard, but I think if that overlay of ‘There’s something wrong with her’ hadn’t been so in place, we could have had more joy and less stress. Which we do now.”

In 2016, after a lifetime of uncertainty, Charlotte was diagnosed with a rare chromosomal abnormality. When Brenneman rewrote “Overcome,” she was surprised and happy to recall how much that diagnosis made a difference, and how much of what she’d originally talked about wanting for her daughter and family had become reality.

“So many things I hoped for are actually in her life right now,” Brenneman said. The show deals with the grief of letting go of some dreams, like a high school diploma or driving a car. “But I was (also exploring) ‘What are we saying yes to?’ And the yeses are all kind of manifesting now.”

Film/TV actress Amy Brenneman, left, and her daughter, Charlotte, appear together in “Overcome,” a play about learning to live with and appreciate neurodivergence.

She says positive changes happened when Charlotte — who comes on stage for the show’s finale — joined Riverview, a private boarding school for children who are neurodivergent or have learning, cognitive or language disabilities. Brenneman calls Riverview the family’s “forever community.”

“It was kind of letting go of ‘normal,’” Brenneman said. “We’re not going to be banging at the door of neurotypical culture anymore. And, as we all know, the more we are free to be ourselves, the more we flourish and the happier we all are.”

Brenneman hopes any viewer with a neurodivergent child might feel less alone knowing others have faced the same questions and challenges to get needed services. That, for young adults, “there is life outside,” and “we are a community.”

“You don’t have to go through any of this alone,” Brenneman said, “which you feel for any hardship, whether it’s someone getting sober or having a kid with special needs. It’s like, ‘Wow, everybody’s over there and I’m over here.’ But there are a lot of us over here, and you’re never going to be alone.”

Charlotte graduated last June and now lives with several other graduates in a Hyannis house for independent living that it took Brenneman and other parents two years to set up and renovate with help from community partners.

And the Cotuit center became part of that life.

Brenneman was referred there because the center’s dozens of community-based programs include Cape Cod Collaborative Arts Network (CapeCodCAN), which provides arts participation opportunities for people with various disabilities.

Center executive director David Kuehn says he was surprised to realize the “Amy” he was asked to meet was a famous actress he’d long admired. Brenneman and family started attending shows and events. Discussions with them and others about involving people with various disabilities jump-started an internship program pairing CapeCodCAN members with theater shows and the Art Bus for children.

Internships, Kuehn says, include applications, training, ushering, orientation, and involvement through long rehearsals.

“We wanted a program that was structured, meaningful and worked like any other intern program because what does inclusivity mean if we’re not making it as fully robust as other programs?”

Interns can later become volunteers.

Charlotte joined interns working backstage for 2023’s “Matilda, the Musical.”

“They were part of the cast and crew, fully integrated. It was such a great experience for everybody involved,” Kuehn says. “That was an outcome of the influence Amy had when they first started getting involved here.”

Brenneman has been told that “Overcome” also speaks to people in marginalized groups beyond special needs, such as those struggling with mental illness or addiction.

“Is something ‘normal’ or ‘abnormal’? Who cares?” she said.

And Peck hopes the show helps put “differences” in a new light.

“We are constantly judging other people for ways that they don’t conform to our idea of what is normal.”

It’s been special, Brenneman said, to share the play with Charlotte, and hear her daughter acknowledge “We’re not there anymore” about low moments depicted. And it’s special to share their story in a Cape community that has welcomed Charlotte.