note: entire contents copyright 2012 by Sheila Barth
Years ago, they were abandoned, misunderstood and misdiagnosed, hidden, warehoused in unspeakable conditions, left to wither away in large institutions or asylums that were grossly understaffed and mismanaged.
Today, with many of those institutions closed, some residents with mental handicaps and disabilities are mainstreamed into communities, but the stigma and NIMBY (not-in-my-backyard) undercurrent prevails because of the public’s lack of awareness and intolerance.
In Tom Griffin’s touching two-act play, “The Boys Next Door,” currently appearing at Winthrop Playhouse’s cabaret theater, Griffin presents a contemporary snapshot about a social worker and four mentally handicapped men living in a New England suburban apartment. Although the play was written and initially appeared on stage in 1986, the Playmakers’ production is set in the present, during the summer, somewhere in suburban New England.
Griffin doesn’t preach about or assail the mental health system. Instead, he introduces the audience to Norman Bulansky and Lucien P Smith, who are mentally diabled; Arnold Wiggins, a “nervous person” who is an obsessive-compulsive schizophrenic, and Barry Klemper, a high-functioning schizophrenic whose passion is teaching golf. Barry is “resourceful,” creating unconventional lessons, plans,and fees for his services.
The four men peacefully co-exist in a two-bedroom apartment, and are supervised daily by Jack, their caring social worker, who’s rapidly getting burned out. The men don’t change, but he does, he laments.
Their plights are heart-rending, at times sweetly childlike, but intensely human. Jack is mainstreaming them to enter society, independently taking menial jobs, and performing everyday living, housekeeping tasks, such as going grocery shopping, taking public transportation, and, for recreation, attending weekly dances with other mentally impaired adults.
The men appear abandoned by their families, mirroring the many who actually are. Relatives don’t visit or check on their well-being, so when Barry’s father writes to say he plans to see Barry after a nine-year hiatus, Barry is apprehensive, yet excited. Unfortunately, the results are disastrous.
Thanks to Jared Culverhouse’s powerful, yet sensitive direction, the cast is uncannily realistic, portraying their characters with precise insight and observation. Last Friday night, several in the audience from WinARC smiled and nodded approvingly throughout the production and delivered an enthusiastic standing ovation. For those unaware, WinARC (Winthrop Advocacy, Resources and Community) is a Winthrop grassroots organization of parents and young adults with disabilities, that has formed partnerships with businesses, organizations and families, and developed new programs to fulfill their needs.
Gregory Cushing Jr. as Jack portrays the besieged social worker with tenderness and patience, while Eric Gaynor as Arnold Wiggins is amazingly obsessive compulsive, yet a vulnerable target to “normal” people’s exploitation and ridicule. Michael T. Lacey as Barry Klemper is also moving, as he discusses his “plans” with his elderly, hard-of-hearing neighbor, Mrs. Fremus. Katie Moore effectively undergoes fast changes in her triple roles as Fremus, neighbor Mrs. Warren, and mentally disabled Clara.
Griffin also explores love, in its simplest form, between Norman Bulansky, who is slow, but works in a doughnut shop and wears a keychain laden with jingling keys, which catches the fancy of Sheila, who is also disabled. She likes Norman and dancing with him. Brion Dion and Rachel Belliveau are charming, capturing this couple’s childlike emotions.
But Anthony Mullin captivates as mentally handicapped Lucien Percival Smith, a ward of the state who’s threatened to have his Social Security disability benefits taken from him, and must appear before a state committee for evaluation. Mullin, who’s originally from London, not only altered his accent, but his entire speech pattern and body language to portray Lucien, which he does with thoughtful grace. Lou Fuoco as Barry’s abusive father and Dave Pizzelli portraying Mr. Hedges, Mr. Corbin and Senator Clark nicely round out this cast, all aided by Christopher Bell’s lighting and sound design, and Nick Raponi’s fine set.
The Winthrop Playmakers’ production of “The Boys Next Door” is a thought-provoking presentation that should be seen by multigenerational audiences. Mental illness and disability have a profound effect on us nationally, and many of us, personally. Griffin’s message captures this spectrum of society’s humanity, their gentleness, and right to work and live among the rest of us.
BOX INFO: Two-act, two-hour play, written by Tom Griffin, presented in the Winthrop Playmakers’ cabaret-style theater at the Winthrop Playhouse, 60 Hermon St., Winthrop, Feb. 17, and 18, at 8 p.m. and matinee on Feb. 17 at 3 p.m. For tickets, please visit www.winthropplaymakers.com.