Seeing Bowie Community Theatre's production of Tom Griffin's "The Boys Next Door," is a moving experience.
Unfamiliar with playwright Griffin, I had initial reservations about a play dealing with mentally challenged individuals living in a group home, struggling with everyday reality.
My misgivings disappeared as I discovered playwright Griffin. In this, his first play, originally produced in 1986, he reveals sensitivity, compassion and a unique ability to educate through gentle humor.
Often amusing to help the audience face disturbing issues, Griffin's dialogue also soars with a poetic eloquence when he focuses on our shared human condition.
Following the men through their routine existence as they cope with the frustrations of grocery shopping and housekeeping, we become aware of how difficult life is for the mentally challenged, who also grapple with people who make life more difficult for them.
"The Boys Next Door" is a character-driven story. Thoughts are revealed haltingly by the group-home residents, and reluctantly by the social worker, Jack, who deals compassionately with his four charges, sometimes confiding his frustrations in monologues directed to the audience.
Of the four residents, the most severely retarded is Lucien P. Smith, a playful man who displays compassion toward his roommates and to Jack. Nearly as handicapped is gentle Norman Bulansky, who works in a doughnut shop. Although he is not as limited mentally, Arnold Wiggins is an obsessive character, frustrated at his inability to function in society.
The other member of the group is Barry Klemper - not retarded, but schizophrenic and the most seriously disturbed. Klemper can relate to normal people and even manipulate them into enrolling in his golf clinic, but he is deeply scarred by from upbringing.
Hoping that "this play will show that our standards are extremely high," director Estelle Miller said she is pleased with the talents of her cast. Each gets inside his character.
Craig Allen Mummey plays the hyperactive, chattering Arnold Wiggins so well that his behavior seems natural. Frustrated at Lucien's playfulness, and angry at his boss forcing him to polish his shoes, Arnold often grows combative.
Leonard Cohen is loveable Norman, who enjoys his doughnut shop job and longs for a social life that includes marriage. At the weekly dance, Cohen is so gentle with retarded girlfriend Sheila (Sunday Wynkoop) that their relationship seems sweeter than most.
Thomas Gibson Wood is powerful in his portrayal of Barry Klemper - funny as he instructs clients in all aspects of golf except hitting the ball, flawless in communicating the pain inflicted by his brutish father (Zareh Mozian) and heartbreaking in his later scenes.
It is W. Ellington Felton who scales the greatest acting heights as Lucien P. Smith. In one scene as fine as any I've witnessed, Felton metamorphoses into an articulate Lucien and delivers this riveting monologue:
"I will not go away and I will not wither because the cage is too small. I am here to remind the species of the species. I am Lucian Percival Smith, and without me, without my shattered, crippled brain, you again will never have to be frightened by what you might have become, or indeed what the future might make you."
Jim Letter is excellent as Jack, a burned-out but still caring and protective social worker who gently holds the group together, helping to make their lives bearable. Letter's monologues move the play forward with a gentle humor that is silenced at the injustice his wards are sometimes forced to endure.
"The Boys Next Door" continues weekends through May 12 at Bowie Playhouse in Whitemarsh Park. Curtain is 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, and at 2 p.m. on Sunday. Call BCT at 301-805-0219 to order tickets.