Some Roanoke County high school students are learning first-hand what it means to be disabled, as they portray adults with physical and mental limitations in an upcoming play.
Glenvar High theater students tackled the sensitive subject of Alzheimer’s several years ago, with a production of “My Father’s War”. Now they’re challenging society’s view of the mentally disabled in “The Boys Next Door”. It chronicles the lives of four men living in a group home.
Steve Franco directed this play at Glenvar 21 years ago but says it’s such a difficult show, it’s taken nearly a generation for him to feel he has the cast that can do playwright Tom Griffin justice.
“It’s easier for us to ignore or pretend that the mentally handicapped don’t exist than it is to accept them into the mainstream of society and I really feel like this is an opportunity for these folks, even at the young age of high school actor, to go out and raise awareness in the community and to challenge folks to not stay comfortable.”
During some scenes, Franco expects the audience to laugh at the men’s situations.
“And then there are other moments in this show which just really pull at your heartstrings as an audience member and where you really, really feel for these folks. And 21 years ago, the audiences were moved by it and I am hopeful that we will get the same response this time.”
To prepare for their roles, Franco and the actors held panel discussions with community residents who have disabled family members. Bryce Mallette, who plays Lucian, a physically and mentally disabled man, says that added insight into their roles.
“The lady who came-she spoke and really taught what a whole day with the mentally handicapped is like and it is hell to say it bluntly. They really have to put up with a lot. Not only that but they just, they showed that it was a blessing as well, that they’re so full of joy and of love and they’re not afraid to just give that to anybody.”
The character of Lucien has a club foot, limited use of his arms and can’t speak clearly. Mallette, a senior, says his role isn’t something to be taken lightly.
“If you’re going to do a role like this, a role portraying the mentally handicapped, that you really do have to set aside all those feelings and just let go and completely free your inhibitions and be that character.”
Junior Sina Varshaneh plays Barry, a paranoid-schizophrenic whose father used to beat him.
“He talks about his father like he’s this rich superstar-like guy, when in reality, it’s this fake reality that he’s made up. He also thinks that he’s a golf pro so he gives little golf lessons and everything. That helps him cope with the mental trauma that he has to deal with, with his father.”
Arnold, a nervous bipolar man played by Senior Jonathan Clark, is bullied by his co-workers at the movie theater.
“He’s not able to stand up for himself and so other people find it easy to take advantage of him.”
He wants the audience to understand what it’s like to be bullied.
“But hopefully this will help them see that he has feelings and even though that he’s a meek person, they shouldn’t take advantage of him.”
Franco hopes the audience will walk away with compassion.
“And I hope that when folks watch this show and go home and process what they saw, they see that these folks are in many ways, just like you and I.”
The play runs Thursday through Saturday at Glenvar High School in Salem.