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Seasoned actors lend talents to drama

March 26, 2004|by ANDREA ROWLAND

andrear@herald-mail.com

The Potomac Playmakers' production of "The Boys Next Door" opens Friday, March 26, at the Women's Club auditorium in downtown Hagerstown.

Some thespians have shied away from staging a play that features four main characters with mental disabilities, but seasoned director Dick Hershey welcomed the challenge of staging the play with sensitivity, he said.

"You have to play it very gently. You can't present it in such a way that it ridicules the handicapped characters. We want the audience to be on their side. We don't want to offend anybody," said Hershey, 79, of Hagerstown, whose theatrical experience spans nearly seven decades. And with a chuckle, "I think back in my early days I offended a lot of people."

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"The Boys Next Door" is a funny yet touching drama that focuses on the lives of Arnold Wiggins (played by actor Barry Harbaugh), Lucien P. Smith (Steve Kershner), Norman Bulansky (Clay Carey) and Barry Clemper (Shawn Nakia), who live together in a group home in modern-day New England under the watchful eye of burnt-out social worker Jack Palmer (Jeff Wine).

"I'm fortunate to have mostly Playmakers' veterans in this play," Hershey said.

The actors are hitting the notes of their roles, which are tough to perform without going over the top and creating caricatures of the characters with disabilities, he said.

The play mingles scenes from the men's daily lives with moments of poignancy when, with touching effectiveness, the audience is reminded that individuals with mental disabilities want to love and laugh and find some meaning and purpose in life - just like the rest of us.

"These are just people, too, dealing with what life throws out to them - with a twist," said Carey, of Knoxville, Md., president of Brunswick (Md.) Community Theatre.

He described Norman as an enthusiastic, childlike man with a sense of humor and an appetite for doughnuts. Carey, who portrayed Norman during the Brunswick company's production of "Boys," is careful to avoid playing the character as a comic foil, he said.

"We're laughing sort of with him instead of at him and his disability," Carey said.

As social worker Jack Palmer, Wine said he strives to deliver a subdued performance that will highlight, not overshadow, the stories of the four main characters.

"This show belongs to the four guys - the mentally-handicapped characters, so I just kind of step back and let them do their thing," said Wine, of Greencastle, Pa.

He described Jack as a recent divorcee who is "trying to find himself," a man who makes up in compassion what he lacks in patience. It's a character to whom Wine can relate in many ways, he said. Both men are laid-back and likable, "but on the rare occasion when we do fly off the handle, look out!"

Hershey also makes an appearance onstage as the despicable Mr. Clemper, Barry's father.

"The audience is going to hate me because Mr. Clemper is a brute," said Hershey, who is happy these days to fulfill roles that call for an "old codger."

"I don't play young romantic leads anymore," he said.

Deborah Elwood juggles three cameo roles - Miss Hedges, a woman to whom Barry imagines giving golf lessons; Mrs. Warren, a neighbor; and Clara, a severely disabled group home resident. Nancy Hershey also dons three different hats for the play - that of the deaf Mrs. Fremus, movie theater owner Mrs. Corbin and Senator Clarke.

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