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'Boys' in the hood
Bay Street's new production puts the spotlight on societal shadows
In 'The Boys Next Door': Chris Soucy, left, plays Norman. Thomas Houston is Lucien. - photo by Bill DeYoung

Tom Griffin's The Boys Next Door is a slice of life. It's just that it's a slightly different life.

Opening April 15 at Bay Street Theatre, The Boys Next Door is a bittersweet comedy about four mentally challenged men living in a small New England group home. Norman, Lucien, Barry and Arnold are functioning human beings who must deal with the various slings and arrows of the day-to-day.

"That's what I like about this show, is that it's mentally handicapped people in their ordinary lives," says the play's director Christopher Stanley. "The ordeals are pretty much the same ordeals that everybody else goes through. As you're watching the show, sometimes you almost forget that these characters are mentally handicapped.

"Norman and his love interest, Sheila, for example. Their relationship, and their interactions with each other, are just as awkward and silly as any two people."

Comparisons with the similarly-themed One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest are, perhaps, inevitable.

Maybe, says Chris Soucy, who plays Norman. But they're unfair comparisons.

"Cuckoo's Nest is very much about oppression, and this is very much about freedom," says Soucy, who directed Ken Kesey's tragicomedy last year at Muse Arts Warehouse. "It's about individuals who are living a life that could not easily be afforded to them. They are independent as much as possible."

Soucy, a longtime member of the Savannah theater community, directed a production of The Boys Next Door in 1999. This is his first time acting in the show.

He emphasizes that the script is not making fun of these four guys, nor is it asking you to feel sorry for them.

"When you watch it, you don't say ‘Oh, what a tragedy. Oh, how hard,'" Soucy explains. "Cuckoo's Nest is a great example of people who are sequestered - they've been cut away from society and separated.

"This is the opposite. This is putting them into a society and getting them to work. It's not about how they're defunct, which is I think my favorite thing about this. It doesn't say that they belong separated from society, or that they can't handle the rigors of daily life."

Lucien, played by Thomas Houston, is the most severely handicapped member of the quartet. The actor believes Lucien is probably the only one who couldn't make it through life without his three friends, or without Jack, the social worker who drops in occasionally to help out.

"I've had two or three different takes on Lucien throughout rehearsal,' Houston says. "Originally, I thought of him as just kind of lost in his own world. Because of the nature of his disorder.

"But as time went on, I began to realize it was less that he was lost, and more that he was just seeing things a different way. He's like a 5-year-old in a grown-up world, and he kind of understands that. Even if everybody else doesn't."

Director Stanley agrees. "You might say ‘This is very childlike, and it brings back memories of my own childhood.' It's like A Christmas Story, where adults are playing children. You're not thinking it's funny because they're mentally handicapped.

"Tom Griffin definitely did his research and tried to make sure that he was as accurate as possible in the mannerisms of these different characters."

Stanley's cast also includes Tim Reynolds, Jonathan Johnson, Bill Cooper, Travis Coles, Billie Stirewalt, Jason Aarons, Kimmi Sampieri and Sherry Moore.

The Boys Next Door, says Soucy, is "a positive representation of people with challenges, without being melodramatic, without being heavy-handed. And without making too light of the circumstances.

"It's a rare play that can depict people with such immense challenges without their being a preachy sensation to it. Or a feeling that they're being put on pedestals."

The key, adds Stanley, is to take the play at face value, and to appreciate what it has to say.

"You might see somebody and they act a certain way, their behavior is a certain way because of one thing or another," he explains, "and you immediately throw judgement on them.

"But when you're looking into this person's daily life, you're seeing that they go through all the same things that we do. Everybody is the same, although how a creator, or science or whatever has allowed them to go through those things might be different. I think that's the general thesis."

The Boys Next Door

Where: Bay Street Theatre at Club One, 1 Jefferson St.

When: At 8 p.m. April 15-17, 21-23

Tickets: $15; April 17 show is $10

Online: clubone-online