Living with Impairment

“I’m living in a mental institution!” You may have heard someone say this when life around them is getting crazy, but have you wondered what it is really like? Tom Griffin‘s play, “The Boys Next Door”, which we saw last night at the Reperatory East Playhouse in Newhall, may help provide an answer to that question.

“The Boys Next Door” is a series of vignettes, with a slight through story, about the lives of four mentally-impaired men living together in a group apartment near a prison near Boston. Throught the story, we get to know these ment by observing there lives. It is not a comedy per se—for you don’t want to be laughing at these men—but it does have its funny movements, as life often does. Rather, this play attempts to treat these men with dignity, showing them doing the best that they could do, despite their impairments (which, to the men, are just part of who they are). These men are: (1) Arnold Wiggens, who has severe OCD, is hyperactive and talks constantly, but can function in the normal world; (2) Norman Bulansky, the moderately-impaired romantic, obsessed with his keys, who works in a doughnut store and is starting to find love with Sheila, a mentally-impaired young woman; (3) Barry Klemper, a schitzophrenic who professes to be a golf pro, but whose facade is broken when his abusive father visits; and (4) Lucien P. Smith, a large black man who has the most severe impairment, but despite that, is perhaps the most noble of the group, for he tries the hardest.

These four young men are working at the top of their abilities, and thus the play—intentionally—doesn’t show them growing much. At the end of the play, we see them exhibiting the same patterns they were behaving when we met them (in fact, some have regressed and gotten worse). However, as I noted previously, there is a through story of growth. This story concerns Jack, the social work assigned to these men. Through these asides, we see how Jack cares for these men, but gets increasingly frustrated with them as well. He tries and he tries to get them to improve, to help them function better. In the end, Jack makes the decision to leave social work, and we see how this decision affects the Arnold, Norman, Barry, and Lucien.

To work well, a play such as this needs to not fall into stereotypes about the mentally impaired. These can’t be the portrayals of “retarded” people that we often see on television: these must be realistic characters that permit the audience to see them as people, and as people with their own dignity and strength. Luckily, for this production, strong direction by Jeff Johnson (in his directing debut) and a wonderful cast pull it off. The performances in this show will touch your heart, and I’m not sure you’ll look at people the same afterwards.

Leading the very strong cast were the four boys. George D. Cummings, an on-air personality at KHTS, portrays Arnold Wiggins. George captures OCD well, from the begininng when he is obsessed about his purchase of 9 boxes of Wheaties, to the end where we see him at the train station, waiting for the train for Russia, because he cannot deal with Jack’s leaving. As Lucien P. Smith, Gregor Mannsæ is perhaps the strongest actor, portraying the severely impaired large man, so proud of his reading card (even though he can’t read), caring about others, wanting so to succeed. He is particularly moving during the one scene where he jumps out of character and turns to the audience with an inner monologue that begins “I stand before you, a middle-aged man in an uncomfortable suit, a man whose capacity for rational thought is somewhere between a five-year-old and an oyster. (Pause.) I am retarded. I am damaged. I am sick inside from so many hours and days and months and years of confusion, utter and profound confusion.” Gregor was just remarkable in this role—a remarkable demonstration of the capacity of this actor. As Norman Bulansky, Marc Segalæ portrayed a romantic man, in love with his doughnuts and keys, starting to reach out to a young woman, but not fully understanding how to do so. Lastly, as Barry Klemper, Jeff Alan-Leeæ gives the facade of the golf pro eager to teach students (even though his knowledge isn’t very deep); however, this is really a front for a very emotionally disturbed young man. We discover this when Barry’s father visits, and we see how the emotional and physical abuse has scarred the character for life. Jeff’s moving portrayal of Barry at this point was wonderful, and made me think about some situations I know where people are being scarred by abuse.

These four men were supported by Kevin Rehdin as Jack, one of the few “normal” people in the show. Kevin comes across as likable and caring about these men, but does a great job of showing how this care takes its toll on his emotions. We also see how hard it is for him to leave them.

Supporting these five wonderful actors, in smaller roles, are Jennifer Beth Lambertus as Sheila, with a portrayal that captured the mental impairment well; Michael Collins as Mr Klemper, the angry and abusive father of Barry; Barry Agin as Mr. Hedgets/Mr. Corbin/Senator Clarke, and Carole Catanzaro as Mrs. Fremus/Mrs. Warren/Clara.
[æ denotes members of æ Actors Equity ]

Technically, things were mostly good, with the staff of REP regulars (and a few new folk) doing wonderful jobs. Jeff Hyde’s set captured the boy’s apartment well, and provided the few ancillary locations required. Tim Christianson lighting was a bit more problematic: not in the design, but in the execution—specifically, there seemed to be some lighting problems for some of Jack’s asides to the audience, where he was lit poorly or not at all. The sound effects by Steven “Nanook” Burkholder were excellent, as was the choice of music (especially TMBG). Costumes were by Kristi Johnson. Michael Keane was the stage manager.

“The Boys Next Door” continues at REP East until August 28. Tickets are available through the REP Online Box Office and through outlets such as Goldstar Events. Next up at REP East will be Neil Simon’s “Laughter on the 23rd Floor”, running September 16 through October 22, 2011.

Upcoming Theatre, Concerts, and Dance: Our theatre calendar gets lighter for a while, although I do have some shows to book. Next week brings our last booked show for August, “On Golden Pond” at the Colony Theatre on August 20. September currently only has one weekend booked: “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” at REP East on September 24; October shows “Shooting Star” at the Colony Theatre on October 1, and “Annie” at Cabrillo Music Theatre on October 22. October will also hopefully bring The Robber Bridegroom” at ICT. Of course, I expect to fill some of the weekends in August, September, and October with productions that have yet to appear on the RADAR of Goldstar or LA Stage Alliance.