LYNN HAVEN — Everyone has met one of “The Boys Next Door,” or maybe he is part of your family.
The Kaleidoscope Theatre is offering you a chance to get to know four men with different cognitive disabilities a little better in the play by Tom Griffin.
On Dec. 19, I walked onto the theater’s Lynn Haven stage and sat on a couch in the communal residence in Boston shared by Arnold Wiggins (Jason Papadakos), Norman Bulansky (Ray H. Stanley), Lucien P. Smith (Jason Blanks) and Barry Klemper (Doug Gilliland).
“I am the performing arts coordinator at Pyramid school,” said director Rachel Eiland-Hall, who knows a man a lot like Lucien. “Basically, stuff I wonder about, I take it to my students. I have gone to them for feedback before.”
Lucien’s disabilities are extremely debilitating. He enjoys checking out lots of library books, especially hard covers of an entire set. He cannot read, but hands titles to Arnold. The state accuses Lucien of faking his condition; He plans to wear his “Spider-Man” tie to a hearing, so they know he means business.
The 1986 story unfolds over strands of yellow and green shag carpet and linoleum floors. The basic framework for the show’s set was built earlier in Kaleidoscope’s season, but has been modified to add a hall and a window.
“I spent more on the set than on Wheaties, but it was close,” said Rachel, who had to buy nine boxes of cereal for the opening scene with Arnold.
Arnold, who had a mild mental disability and obsessive compulsive tendencies, often is taken advantage of by his coworkers at the movie theater and by employees at the supermarket. When things seem too tough for him to handle, he threatens to go to Russia.
“The thing I love about this play is it is funny and it’s kind and it’s subtle. I love that the viewpoint character is a man with a cognitive disability. … Jack is an unreliable character.”
Rachel’s husband, Isaac Eiland-Hall, plays the part of Jack Palmer, a burned-out social worker to the four men.
“For the past eight months. I've been supervising five group apartments of the mentally handicapped. Seventeen adult men,” he said.
The production also features local performers Dharma Arthur as a neighbor and lady at a dance; Matt Albritton as Mr. Klemper, Barry’s father; and Clay Wambo, who attempts to get golf lessons from Barry. Barry, who suffers from schizophrenia, believes he is a pro golfer and is easily agitated, partly caused from his abusive childhood.
The night I observed the cast, it was their first full rehearsal without scripts.
“I just tell them, ‘If you mess up, keep a straight face and get back,’ ” said Rachel, as the cast occasionally broke out in laughter over missed lines and misunderstood cues.
But by the Jan. 4 performance, the dialogue will be flawless … at least as far as the audience can tell.
“A couple of actors came by Pyramid and spent time with the students,” Rachel said. “I have to be careful and remember this is a story of Lucien, Arnold, Norman and Barry, and not put my experience in too much. Let them do background character exploration and not play this student of mine.”
Norman is a proud middle-aged man with mental disabilities who works at a doughnut shop, causing him to become overweight. His girlfriend, Sheila (Jenna Parish), is from another group home, and they are both obsessed with his keys. Jack wants him to choose between keys and doughnuts.
“Can I eat while I’m thinking it over?” Norman asks.
Some of the words and lines in the production are “jarring” to Rachel, who keeps reminding herself that was the diagnosis in the ’80s. In the first Act, Jack says, “Lucien and Norman are retarded.”
“That’s how they were officially diagnosed in those days. Still, occasionally, I will see it in a case file. Now it says person with developmental disability,” said Rachel, still grappling with script details. “Some of the care ratios and language are out of date. Mr. Kempler refers to Lucien as ‘darkie,’ and instead I switched it to ‘retard.’ I’m a big proponent of ‘spread the word to end the word.’ By that point in the play, you have had an hour and a half to get to know Lucien. Most people don’t think of it as hurtful. At the time, people were called ‘mentally retarded.’ My hope is it will land in such a way to make people think.”
‘THE BOYS NEXT DOOR’
What: Four men with different cognitivie disabilities live in a communal residence under the supervision of an overworked social worker
When: Jan. 4-6, 11-13 and 18-20; showtimes are at 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and a 2 p.m. matinee Sundays
Where: Kaleidoscope Theatre, 207 E. 24th St. in Lynn Haven
Tickets: $16, $15 for military/seniors and $8 for students when pre-reserved by calling 265-3226; door prices $1 higher.
Pyramid Incorporated, with schools in Panama City, Fort Walton Beach, Pensacola, Tallahassee and Tampa, serves more than 700 adults representing a wide range of abilities. The organization is known for its unique arts program, which caters to each student’s level of ability and interest. Details: PyramidInc.org.