Marquette Theatre’s ‘Boys Next Door’ opens social justice issues

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“The Boys Next Door” is on one level a raucous and heartfelt comedy about four male roommates, but Marquette Theatre’s latest show becomes more touching and complex by focusing on the life of four men with disabilities.

Opening Nov. 7 at the Helfaer Theatre, “The Boys Next Door” tells the story of Arnold Wiggins, Lucien P. Smith, Norman Bulansky and Barry Klemper who live together in a home for people with mental illness and are aided by their social worker Jack Palmer.

The play, written by Tom Griffin, explores the characters’ lives through a series of interactions and vignettes in which their everyday lives are shown with a directness that is ripe for both compassion and comedy.

One of the four roommates, Arnold, played by Kyle Conner, a junior theater arts major in the College of Communication, has obsessive compulsions and a nervous disorder. The illnesses are revealed when the character becomes uncomfortable and threatens to run away to Russia.
To prepare for the role, Conner spent time immersed in the mindset to try and discover what traits he shared with Arnold.
“I committed one hundred percent to finding out how we are similar,” he said.
Norman played by, Armando Ronconi, a junior in the College of Communication, works in a doughnut shop and has put on weight from his job and love of the pastries. Another dimension is thrown into the mix when Norman meets a love interest at a dance put on by the social workers.
“What’s important for Norman in this play is that he really makes that statement about love and how that fits into (the life) of the mentally handicapped,” Ronconi said.
Barry has schizophrenia and believes he is a pro golfer and offers private lessons to patrons unaware of his illness. The role provided a challenge for Oliver Wolf, a junior in the College of Communication.
“The thing about Barry is that on the surface he is very normal, it’s only when he is in moments of high anxiety his symptoms come out,” Wolf said.
The fourth roommate Lucien, played by freshman in the College of Communication Oumaru Abdulahi, is the most visibly handicapped and is described in the play as “having the mental capabilities of a five-year-old in a grown man’s body.” Lucien is threatened with the removal of his disability benefits and struggles to understand the situation.
With the most severe handicap Lucien’s character shows how severely a person’s life can be affected by mental illness. It’s a message Abdulahi took to heart.
“It really opened my view and it’s gonna be a great opportunity to show other people about these different characters and the way that they live their lives,” he said.
The group’s social worker, Jack, played by Larry Lajewski, a junior in the College of Communication, is having a hard time dealing with the man and their problems. While his difficulties change, many of their issues appear static. For Lajewski, Jack provided insight into how the cast approaches those with mental disabilities.

Through all of the struggles with mental illness, “The Boys Next Door” is still a comedy showing the heartfelt humor found in everyone’s life.

“When I went into it, so many people have this stigma that people with mental issues are people who we can’t relate to, but these are people who are just like us,” Conner said.
The cast and crew are intent on communicating the humanity of the characters, but are also aware it is a depiction that is potentially fraught with misunderstanding and if done improperly could be offensive.
“I feel like I’m speaking for everyone else when I say there’s a line you can’t cross” Wolf said.
It’s a line they walked carefully along with the crew in portraying the characters’ lives. The preparation for this play also proved a challenge for the crew.
“The Boys Next Door” has a sparse setting with the simple furnishing a home for those with mental illness would have. Still, while the set itself may be a simple apartment, the play requires more than 200 props, all under the purview of properties master, Jacob Daggett, a junior in the College of Education.
Especially demanding were the dozens of doughnuts Norman obsesses over that are featured prominently in several scenes. A local bakery is providing a box each night of the show to use on stage for Norman to eat, but Daggett had to get creative to get all the doughnut needed on stage.
He got advice from the Milwaukee Repertory and found the expandable insulating foam he describes as “great stuff”.”
“I sat there for three hours Saturday and three hours Sunday and sprayed it into different shapes. It dried and I used shoe spray for the dough coloring and acrylic paint for the frosting. Once those were done, I felt good because there is quite a bit of reference to them and use to them, they are thrown and eaten,” Daggett said.
Doughnuts aside, the play offers insight into characters’ daily struggles. Addressing such issues is one of the missions of Marquette Theatre, which aims to put on a play with a social justice theme each year.
This year is especially important, marking the one year anniversary of the death of the former chair and artistic director Phylis Ravel. Social justice issues were important to Ravel and Marquette Theatre is nearing its goal of creating an endowment in her name, “The Phylis Ravel Theatre and Social Justice Fund.”
To get the audience more involved there will also be an Open the Door, MU! digital forum for discussion across the Marquette community about mental illness in conjunction with the production. There will also be several presentations after selected performances of the show with people who have a connection to mental illness. The forum hopes to collect Marquette voices on the topic and create a place to discuss the important issues raised in a show that manages to cover a serious topic, honor its characters’ humanity and offers glimpses of the comedy that’s part of everyday life.