When I was a child, my parents took me to see an Off-Broadway drama in which everyone in the cast had some form of mental disability. While the performers were all playing characters and had dialogue, their characters had the same disability they had in real life. I don’t remember the name of the play but it stayed with me, particularly in the way it showed how the men and women on stage (some of whom were in a wheelchair, wore headgear or walked with a limp) were all recognizable in their struggles and expressed themselves with a striking clarity. I thought about that show a lot while watching Ricky Jones’ production of Tom Griffin’s “The Boys Next Dorr,” which just opened at The Historic Iao Theater.
The greatest success of Griffin’s play and Jones’ rendering, which is hilarious and powerful in equal measure, is that gives a voice and identity to those who are not always able to express themselves. Griffin’s work, in which an apartment of mentally impaired men and their caretaker share memories and developing scenarios, is profound and direct. In the same way, none of the actors in this production are doing shtick and Method ticks. There is an openness and compassion to this production, providing reflection on those with disabilities and tapping into the natural humor and humanity within each individual.
Shane Borge stars as Jack, the caretaker assigned to watch over the four men who are initially described in clinical terms: “clinically retarded, mild disabilities, extreme disabilities and a case of schizophrenia.” The men in the group are played by Francis Taua, Dan Church, Rueben Carrion and John Galvan. Griffin’s episodic structure and the thoughtful work of the great ensemble cast allow any barriers the audience may have towards the characters to wither away; these men and women may be child-like in their demeanor but we recognize immediately the fire within each of them.
Griffin’s dialogue emphasizes verbal disconnections between people and establishes an episodic structure that benefits the actors as much as Jones’ guidance; every scene appears carefully considered, with every vignette given the proper pacing and life to breathe.
Taua’s Arnold sets the scene and tone, as the character’s inherent quirkiness and the actor’s carefully orchestrated method of expression establishes the company the audience is about to share. To say the least, any given scene could have gone wrong had the actors given hammy, demonstratively self satisfied performances but this is never the case- every performer makes deliberate, disciplined choices in how they express their character’s physicality, state of mind and means of vocalizing it. A feat I never thought possible with a show such as this- every actor somehow seems to be underplaying it, going as far as they need to go to shape the souls of the men and women they embody and halting at every inclination to overdo it.
Galvan’s work, in particular, is a textbook example of this, as his Norman seemingly never makes eye contact, has a way of getting too close to people but never seeming to be intruding and a pre-determined way of saying things that he struggles to make sound organic every time. I really loved this guy and Galvan’s performance is the reason. Galvan’s scenes with Leighanna Locke (likewise, phenomenal at making her every choice appear so true and natural) have an impact, not just because this sort of love story is rarely portrayed in any form but because, beat-for-beat, the unique, long developing courtship we witness is, nevertheless, recognizable and endearing in a way most love stories never are.
Carrion has the show’s most impactful scene, an encounter with a Senator that allows for a self declaration that, tragically, only the audience is privy to; during this sequence, in which Carrion introduces another voice for Lucien, I was crying frequently and didn’t really stop until the play was over. Lucien is arguably the play’s most comical and broad character, as his childlike nature is most out in the open but Carrion digs deep and, in a number of beautiful moments, shows us how tender the character is.
The character of Barry fascinates me, as there’s always a sense of danger whenever he appears. In Church’s hands, Barry pushes forward by creating barely plausible scenarios, keeping his tortured inner self at bay. It’s not the only example here where an actor’s empathy for their role leans more in the direction of pathos than comedic interpretation. Church’s powerhouse confrontation with his father (played by an imposing, well-cast Paul Janes-Brown) is horrifying and was played out to absolute silence from a stunned audience. The scene hurts and I applaud both actors for taking it as far as it could go.
Borge is great as Jack, never trying to shape him as an Everyman but a conflicted individual with as many hang-ups and flaws as those around him. The tone of Borge’s performance for each scene (we see Jack’s impatience beneath of surface of compassion but fading patience) is just right. I also loved Megan Caccamo’s series of character turns and, impressively, Dale Button is unrecognizable until his final appearance.
There’s great mood lighting by Amy Lord and skillfully utilized sound work by Dawn Harper (Kealoha), giving life to the unseen exteriors and providing style. Jones keeps the narrative moving briskly and, most importantly, his work and that of his entire production offer respect and illuminating insight towards mentally disabled adults. If that makes it sound like a Message Play or an ordeal, ten I haven’t done my job: “The Boys Next Door” is funny and moving in the ways one would hope but the performances and the success of its heartfelt intentions are what make this production truly remarkable.
The Boys Next Door plays until May 12th at The Historic Iao Theater. Tickets are available by calling 808-242-6969 or by going to mauionstage.com.