This weekend is looking to be one of those spring weekends where Kathy and I will see each other first thing in the morning across the bathroom commode while we brush our teeth – and then not again until we climb over each other and into bed late that night. . . thanks to a plethora of obligations taking us in different directions. So when Kathy said that she really really wanted to attend the play at the Racine Theater Guild tonight, I agreed to join her for one reason and one reason alone – because I wanted to be with her. Heck, if she had said she had her heart set on going to a bingo parlor in Minot, North Dakota, I would have happily come along. Well, maybe it would have been with gritted teeth, but I would have willingly done just about anything to have some time with her. And actually, I had heard a little bit about the play they were doing- and I knew that some strong performers were in it- and I figured that if nothing else, I could just slouch in my seat and take an expensive nap if I simply couldn’t keep my eyes open. At least I would be napping next to the woman I love.
And then the lights came on at 8 p.m. and I found myself completely enthralled with “The Boys Next Door.” Tom Griffin’s award-winning play is about several developmentally disabled adults in a group home and the man who is their primary caretaker. . . and the joys and frustrations which come with the job. I laughed – I cried – and I was utterly awake from beginning to end, which is exceedingly rare for me when I’m attending anything on a Friday night. But this play grabbed me by the throat and didn’t let go until the curtain call. It’s partly that the play is very well written . . . but what truly sealed the deal was the remarkably believable performances of Joe Vignieri, DeLavell Baker, and Andrew Wallace. There was not one single moment in any of their performances when I felt like I was watching them act. I was watching them be Arnold and Lucien and Norman in the way that one watches Meryl Streep become the characters she plays. That may seem like praise that is way over the top, but honestly you would have thought that these three guys had undergone some sort of surgical procedure that rendered them temporarily “damaged” – that’s how authentic their performances were.
I suppose that part of the reason this story and these characters resonated so powerfully with me is because I have had developmentally disabled people in my life for as long as I can remember. When we lived in Decorah, my dad would lead a worship service at the Winneshiek County Home every Sunday around the noon hour – and I would often come along with him (and maybe my siblings, too, although I don’t remember them being there) – sometimes to play piano for the hymns, although there was a woman out there who typically played. ( I would play if she were under the weather. ) A wide range of people lived at the County Home, including developmentally disabled adults and others suffering from serious physical disabilities – and I suspect that my dad saw some benefit in me being there to meet these people and to be rather forcefully shown that not everybody in the world is exactly like we are – but that does not mean that they don’t matter. By the way, the only payment my dad received for conducting those services was that he was usually given a little box of eggs, meat and other things from the adjacent County Farm. Far more important than that was the satisfaction I’m sure he felt in doing this – and the unbridled love and appreciation that flowed from this very interesting congregation. And in an era when his main congregation was racked by sharp and painful divisions over issues such as the Viet Nam War – when congregational meetings would often dissolve into bitter and painful disputes – it must have seemed like heaven on earth for my dad to be ministering to people who were not caught up in any of that . . . because they couldn’t be.
Later on, I can remember befriending different kids from the “special ed” class – including a boy named Ronnie Rustad who walked with crutches and was mildly retarded (I know that’s not the term we’re supposed to use, but it’s what we said back then and I’m still mystified at how that term is in such disfavor now) and who was so sweet. I would see Ronnie around town and at school – and every so often the phone would ring at night and it would be Ronnie, asking if I wanted to go with him to “the races.” He was referring to the stock car races at the county fairgrounds, and it was the last thing on earth I wanted to do . . . so I always made up some excuse. But boy, Ronnie never gave up and I feel like he kept telephoning me for years on end to pose that same question, over and over again. But he and I had other fun together, and I think it was really good for me to be around someone who lived so joyfully and energetically in the face of some tough deprivation. My biggest regret is that when I look back I wish that I had been more generous with my time and made more room in my life for Ronnie. It’s my loss that I didn’t.
I’ve had the privilege of knowing some other Special People – and I have an especially soft spot in my heart for a young woman named Michelle, whose father Joe was a member of the local barbershop chorus. Michelle has Down Syndrome but functions remarkably well – and for years she was a regular fixture at those barbershop chorus rehearsals, and the guys of the chorus embraced her and made her feel so welcome and cherished. I get such a warm feeling inside just picturing Michelle with those barbershoppers, and the laughs and smiles and hugs that they shared. I also remember stopping once at the Culver’s where Michelle used to work (I think she can’t work anymore because of back trouble) and she was so delighted to see someone she knew and very proudly took me over to the manager to introduce me to him- and that manager spoke with such obvious delight and warmth about Michelle and the great job she did helping to keep the dining room clean. When I think about Michelle and the light that she adds to the world, it makes me genuinely grateful that she and her brothers and sisters are part of the human race. We would be so much poorer if we didn’t have the Boys (and the Girls) next door.
pictured above: curtain call for “The Boys Next Door.” By the way, another truly remarkable performance was given by our friend Joe Mooney, who plays the father of one of the residents. He turns out to be a rather bitter, scarred person (missing an arm, as a matter of fact) and utterly incapable of sharing love with his son. Joe, in real life, is an incredibly gentle and compassionate soul (and a police officer) so to see him playing a role like this was mind-boggling.