THEATRE PREVIEW ‌ The Boys Next Door 

The Girl Next Door: Sheri Grace Wenger gets back in the theatre game

The Boys Next Door
June 29, 30, July 6, 7, 12-14, 19-21 at 8 p.m.
July 8 and 22 at 3 p.m.
$20/Adults, $18/Seniors, $16/Students
The Village Playhouse
730 Coleman Blvd., Mt. Pleasant
557-1163 or sheri@sherigrace.com

Sheri Grace Wenger may be the most influential member of the Charleston theatre community you haven't heard of — or at least, you haven't heard anything of her lately. That's about to change, though.

No, no, you're thinking of someone else — that's Sharon Graci, artistic director of PURE Theatre, not Sheri Grace. Don't worry about it. Happens all the time. Sheri Grace Wenger has been directing, and often acting in, plays and musicals in Charleston since 1989. There's hardly an existing local stage she hasn't worked on, and a number of the ones she has worked on don't exist anymore.

Maybe you've seen one of the many local incarnations of Always ... Patsy Cline. Wenger's produced it a half dozen times in as many locations since 1992. How about The Rock 'n' Roll Heaven Show, the insanely popular musical revue featuring actors who are dead ringers for dead singers? Yep, that's hers, too. Any of the plays you might have seen or heard of at Footlight Theatre from 2000-2004 were mounted under her guidance or direction, and if you caught a Piccolo Spoleto show at Charleston Music Hall in 2005 or 2006, you saw her handiwork. If you walked into the building at King and Calhoun streets that's now home to Millennium Music anytime between 1998-2000, you would have walked not into Millennium but into Wenger's short lived but much loved Midtown Theatre and a production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, The Last Night of Ballyhoo, Cabaret, Psycho Beach Party, or any of a dozen other shows that the cabaret-style theatre and lounge hosted in its two busy years.

Wenger's been off the grid since Piccolo Spoleto '06, when she produced a fat lineup of acts at Charleston Music Hall that included the Lovell Sisters, Rock 'n' Roll Heaven, and actor Jeff Daniels, among others. There were plans for another Piccolo series this year, but in January, her son Ryan Ahlert, also a talented actor and director, was involved in a near-fatal car accident that left him with a broken femur, two broken hips, and multiple rib, pelvis, and vertebral fractures.

Since then, Wenger has split time between helping Ahlert through a painful recovery process and working with her longtime choreography partner Linda Walker to create a new production company and rehearsal/classroom facility on James Island. This weekend, their combined efforts culminate in a production of Tom Griffin's 1988 play The Boys Next Door at Mt. Pleasant's Village Playhouse for a four-week run. Ahlert's directing the show under the auspices of his mother's new company Midtown Productions — a throwback to her old digs at King and Calhoun.

The Boys Next Door was last produced in town at Footlight Theatre in 1998, directed by Kay Shroka. It's the story of four mentally disabled men living in a community home in a New England city and the social worker who cares for them, a well-meaning but burned-out young man named Jack. But if you're expecting that Wenger and Ahlert have settled on a heart-wrenching Lifetime-style drama for their company's first production — a bit of theatrical catharsis for both of them, perhaps — you'd be wrong.

The Boys Next Door is a comedy.

"It's about how society in general responds to people with mental disabilities," Wenger says. "How disabled people get along in the world — their loves, their friends, what they deal with on a daily basis. And it's very funny."

If there's one thing mainstream American society doesn't hold with these days, it's having a laugh at the expense of mentally disabled people (well, unless you're the Farrelly brothers). But Griffin's play has no compunctions about using the word "retarded," and it's rife with scenes from the daily lives of these four, where little things sometimes become momentous and situations that would be ordinary for the rest of us become comic. But the brilliance of The Boys Next Door lies in the compassion and understanding with which it peers into the half-lit world of its handicapped protagonists.

"It's written and billed as a comedy," Wenger observes, "not a dramedy or a comedy/drama. But it's also wonderfully poignant. It's a challenge to present it correctly and not make fun of people with mental disabilities."

In an effort to better understand their subjects, Wenger says the production team spent a day at the Hope Center, a work center operated by the Disabilities Board of Charleston County, at the invitation of executive director Karolyn Payne Elliot. After visiting with the disabled staff at the Hope Center, the group drove out to the Delicious Delights Bakery in West Ashley to have lunch with the employees there — again, all people with various degrees of mental disabilities.

"And after that experience," Wenger says, "we realized, as they do, that you can't help but laugh sometimes. They do some funny things, just like we all do. The guys in our cast are hilarious, but it's because they're playing it straight in funny situations."

Wenger's cast includes Fred Hutter (who also appeared in Footlight's 1998 production), Ross Magoulas, Robbie Thomas, Jamie Smithson, and Scott Haithcock.

Paulette Bertolami, Karl Bunch, Kain Cameron, and Monique Waters also appear in supporting roles.

While she works to get her new rehearsal and classroom facility at the Shoppes of Folly Road ready for business, Wenger's producing her show at the Village Playhouse, which she says reminds her of her old Midtown Theatre. There's a certain synchronicity in that: Playhouse owner and executive director Keely Enright managed the Midtown for Wenger for the two years it was in business and modeled her theatre on it.

And if you missed Always ... Patsy Cline the first half-dozen times, not to worry. You'll have a chance to see it when Wenger mounts it again at the Village Playhouse in January.


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