“The Boys Next Door,” presented by the Owosso Community Players, is not about boys. Rather, it is a heart-wrenching tale about four grown men, intellectually and emotionally disabled, residing in a communal residence home. In many respects, these men are not all that much different than any of the rest of us.
Except for one thing. The character of Jack, a social services caseworker responsible for visiting 17 such homes, notes in the play, “They never change.”
Actors portraying characters with moderate to severe limitations face a serious challenge. They must present those characters in a manner that conveys the complexity of their simplicities. Owosso Community Players partnered with the Arc of Shiawassee County to produce this play, and both actors and directors had exposure to real-life people with disabilities. The result is a representation of the daily lives of people with disabilities that feels authentic, neither understated nor over the top.
Each of four men have their moment in the spotlight. The play opens with Arnold (Jerry Ciarlino) coming home from a grocery store with 17 boxes of Wheaties. A store manager, seeking to take advantage of Arnold’s disability, suggested that was the number of boxes that four men might consume in a week. Arnold is moderately impaired, functional enough to keep a job cleaning toilets yet nervous enough that small disruptions can set off a roller coaster of emotions.
The dialogue between Arnold and Jack (Quentin Brainerd), intended to calm Arnold, is a classic example of empathetic listening skills.
We are then introduced to the other men, each with a slightly different disabling condition, all as emotionally volatile as Arnold. Sparks fly. Comments are misunderstood, sometimes taken out of context, other times taken more literally than intended. A plea of “Hold your horses!” invites puzzled looks. ”Horses, where are the horses?”
Audience members, at first amused by these dissociative comments, soon realize this is the dialogue of every day in these homes — impaired people bouncing off each other, somehow managing to get through another day.
Lucien (Artis White), the most severely impaired resident of the house, shuffles around, often sing-songing the first three letters of the ABC’s — except he can never quite get to the third letter accurately.
One of the most dramatic moments of this play is when Lucien is summoned to a meeting of disability experts to reassess his limitations. White begins a response to a question with a mix of fragmented, nonsensical thoughts. Then, in a moment of magical realism, we are treated to a powerful narrative exposition of what intellectually impaired people might say on their own behalf, if they were able.
The lights are dim. Lucien stands, no longer shuffling. For a moment, we hear the deep suffering that is under the surface.
Another character, Norman (Michael Windnagle), explores the challenges that people with disabilities have navigating sex and romance. A scene at the end of the first act, in which he and another disabled character, Sheila (Jessica Hickey), slow dance slowly to Glen Hansard’s “Falling Slowly,” is particularly poignant.
Barry (Spencer Perrenoud) has issues that are more mental than physical, bordering on schizophrenia. A visit from Barry’s father after nine years of neglect ends in a physically abusive incident, sending Barry into psychotic withdrawal and hospitalization.
This is not an easy play to enjoy. It reminds us that behind closed doors, impaired people have lives that are more challenging than we care to know about.
“The Boys Next Door”
Owosso Community Players 8 p.m. Friday, Jan. 22 and Saturday, Jan. 23; 3 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 24 $15/$13.50 students and seniors/$7.50 children 13 and under Lebowsky Center 122 E. Main St., Owosso (989) 723-4003, owossoplayers.com.