KPBS AIRDATE: 1991
For years now, we’ve seen the disorder-of-the-week on television and the disability-of-the-year on film. Right now, on San Diego stages, the affliction floodlights are trained on Helen Keller, in “”The Miracle Worker,” at the San Diego Junior Theatre, and “”The Boys Next Door,” a Lamb’s Players production about four developmentally disabled adults.
Creating those characters is not an easy task for a playwright. The piece could get preachy. Or maudlin. Or excessively medical, overly informative. But playwright Tom Griffin has managed the near-impossible. He’s made his play warm and funny, without mockery or sentimentality. And Kerry Meads has directed this San Diego premiere with caring sensitivity.
The play isn’t flawless, but on most levels, it works. There are a couple of dream-sequences, when the lights change, and we see these disabled adults as normal — you know, just like you and me. I sort of got the idea without those contrivances. Especially when, with newfound, fantasy-perfect speech, one character describes himself as having a “capacity for rational thought somewhere between a five-year-old and an oyster.” I didn’t think that was funny.
And then, in the most heavy-handed moment of the play, he tells the audience “I’m here to remind the species of the species. Without me you will never again be frightened by what you might have become, or what your future might make you.” Thanks for the explanation. We did get the picture.
But overall, the picture the Lamb’s Players paints is an appropriately lopsided one. It’s a weird little world these four guys inhabit, and they’re quite a set of roommates.
There’s Lucien and Norman, who are retarded, Arnold, the nervous depressive who’s like Don Knotts in nerd clothes. And Barry, the schizophrenic who’s convinced he’s a golf pro. Each has sadly believable little quirks of behavior and repetitive speech patterns that the actors really bring to life. Robert Smyth is particularly endearing as the stammering, eye-rolling, “Oh boy! Oh boy!” Norman. And Damon Bryant is simply perfect as the simple Lucien.
As the burned-out human service worker who oversees the boys, Ronald B. Lang is so natural, you can’t believe they didn’t just pluck him out of the Social Welfare Department.
Mike Buckley has packed all sorts of detail into his role as scenic designer, cramming the kitchen of the tacky little apartment with all kinds of marvelous minutia.
The point, of course, is that any of these guys could be the boy next door. Like Jack, the caseworker, we’re free to walk away at the end. We’ve had some good laughs. But we also feel a little guilty, and a little sad.
For KPBS radio, I’m Pat Launer.
©1991 Patté Productions Inc.