CRIPPLED INSIDE Comes to the Players' Ring
During the 1960s, someone wrote a law that has changed the course of American history and to this day guides the way our country accepts immigrants. A regional playwright's fictional story of this unsung hero and how he changed the face of America will open Friday, Jan. 24 at the Players' Ring Theatre in Portsmouth.
Playwright Lawrence Hennessy of Rockport, Mass., made up the lead character, James Matherson, but his play "Crippled Inside" addresses an actual law and provides a historical perspective on the turbulent 1960s, dealing with issues like drug use, war, power, mental illness and sexual politics. Throughout the play, figures including J. Edgar Hoover, Bobby Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon appear. All of it is set to the beat of John Lennon's timeless music.
"Crippled Inside" gives a face to historical pieces of legislation and reveals the chaotic, often heartbreaking aspects of the real life personalities of people behind the laws, according to Hennessy.
"People came here and started lives here," Hennessy said. "Generations of people started families and careers and are now part of mainstream society. But the people who made that work rarely get thought of or mentioned in history books."
The lead character, the man who wrote the law, is a composite of people Hennessy knew in the Kennedy/Johnson era, including Hennessy's father. The playwright says that the story of Matherson is neither a valentine to, nor a biography of his father.
The play is told from the point of view of Matherson's son, who is writing a book about unsung heroes in history and he tells this story from his hospital room after suffering a nervous breakdown.
Hennessey was raised in the Virginia suburbs of Washington DC, the son of a government employee, so he had an intimate view of the people that make up the government. He says that about a third of the events captured in his play actually happened, another third did not, "and the remaining third are anyone's guess."
Today's pervasive battering of people in power does not sit well with Hennessy.
"A lot of people who do who work in government are getting trashed these days as being either corrupt or incompetent or having some conspiracy they are trying to put over on the American people," he said. "But all the people I knew growing up in DC were really decent, honest people, a bit quirky perhaps at times, and not always people I would agree with, but not the sinister people they are being portrayed as now."
In Hennessy's view, the immigrant law is being wrongfully criticized today, more than five decades later.
"Today, that law gets trashed routinely as we talk about all sorts of people who shouldn't be here," Hennessy said. "And that is utter nonsense."
In his account, Matherson wanted to be a charismatic leader, but ended up behind the scenes due to a disability caused by a bout of polio.
The play looks inside this man's personal life and what it was like for him to juggle challenges at home and raise a family while still being dedicated to promoting social justice in an imperfect world filled with imperfect people, Hennessy said.
The cast of three includes Robert McKenzie of Rowley as the Matherson. McKenzie was most recently seen in "Conflict of Interest" at the Firehouse in Newburyport. Jonathan Day of Kittery, who was most recently in "Baby with the Bathwater" at the Players' Ring this summer, and Steve McNally of York, who was in "Death comes to the Food Court", also at the Ring, round out the cast.
The show is directed by Tiffany Bartholomew of Newburyport, who also directed Hennessy's play "Final Analysis" as well as a three-week production of "Crippled Inside" last year at The Actors Studio of Newburyport.
"Crippled Inside" will be performed weekends from Jan. 24 to Feb. 9 at the Players' Ring Theatre at 105 Marcy St. in Portsmouth, with performances on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm, and Sundays at 3 and 8 pm. A "Talkback," which gives the audience a chance to discuss the performance with the actors and director, will follow the 3 pm show on Sunday, Jan. 26. Tickets are $20 with discounts for students, seniors, and Players' Ring members. Reservations can be made at playersring.org or 603-436-8123.