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October 13th, 2010 BEN WATERHOUSE | Performance
 

Telethon (Portland Playhouse)

An honestly soul-crushing comedy.

     
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FLUFFY BUNNIES: Weaver, O’Connell and Stevens.

You think your job sucks? Talk to someone who works in for-profit social services. They work awful hours for miserable pay, constrained by draconian bureaucracy, caring for people whose mental illness, drug addiction or disabilities make them incapable of running their own lives. It’s a miserable way to make a living, but they don’t complain much, because their clients have it way worse than they do. It takes tremendous strength of will to keep your ego from disappearing when you spend your day wiping asses for eight bucks an hour.

That crushing humiliation is the subject of this one-act by Kristin Newbom, in which a pair of employees at a home for adults with cerebral palsy (Michael O’Connell and Valerie Stevens) sit with three of their clients in a Dunkin’ Donuts, counting bundles of cash, wearing cheap Halloween costumes. We don’t know where the money came from, but we assume it required some kind of demeaning performance. It is soon revealed the two are barely in control of their lives, burdened by debt and divorce, struggling to do their jobs despite tyrannical management and endless personal problems. They’re so self-involved they don’t notice when one of their charges slowly falls out of her wheelchair. They could use minders of their own.

O’Connell’s and Stevens’ performances are moving, but they have nothing on the rest of this really remarkable cast. Nikki Weaver, Casey McFeron and Gary Norman, directed by Rose Riordan, have nailed the exterior symptoms of cerebral palsy in three distinct manifestations. Lewis (McFeron), the most able of the three, is a horny bullshitter with a cruel sense of humor. Shelly (Weaver) is childish, a cheerful survivor of unspecified abuses. Larry (Norman) can barely move or speak; he sits silently, painstakingly tapping away at a computer on his lap. He writes beautiful poetry, but no one is around to hear it read.

Newbom’s portrayal of disability is crude, unromantic and occasionally mean, and as a result feels more honest than any Hollywood paean to handicapped sainthood. Being wheelchair-bound doesn’t mean you aren’t an asshole. We’re all assholes.


SEE IT: The Church, 602 NE Prescott St., 205-0715. 8 pm Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 pm Sundays. Closes Oct. 31. $16-$21.
 
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