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This is the story: Four mentally handicapped men live their lives in a supervised house under the eye of a young, burned-out social worker.

Okay, it’s not the sexy, midriff-baring, star-vehicle material Hollywood cranks out.

It’s not even I Am Sam.

The Boys Next Door gives us no explosions, no car chases, no alien invasions, no A-list taint. It did come out as a straight-to-video film in ’95 — but probably garnered less glory than another movie of the same title, released a decade earlier and starring notorious bad boy Charlie Sheen as a California teen on a crime spree.

Personally, I’d rather watch Nathan Lane (who starred in the VHS-bound tale of the handicapped men) any day.

But playwright Tom Griffin didn’t pen his script in hopes of seeing his name in lights over Broadway. Well, maybe he did, but the fact is, presenting four special-needs guys muddling through life in a group home is about as far from glam as art gets.

And yet Peter Carver, adjunct instructor of drama at Asheville-Buncombe Technical College (and former Asheville Community Theatre Executive Director), chose Griffin’s Boys to be the inaugural production of the school’s burgeoning theater scene, embodied in the A-B Tech Drama Club.

“It offers the actors some really juicy roles,” explains Carver. Juicy enough that more then 40 local performers auditioned to play Boys‘ 10 characters.

Which include Norman, who works in a doughnut shop and can’t resist the tempting sweets; Lucien P. Smith, who’s got the intellect of a child but imagines he is able to read and comprehend complex material; hyperactive, compulsive Arnold, who acts as the group’s ringleader; and brilliant, schizophrenic Barry, who fantasizes he’s a golf pro.

Imagine the one-note Sheen trying to pull that off.

“People who work with the mentally handicapped might think this is just mimicking,” explains Carver, addressing the potential pitfalls of the humorous script.

“But it’s not. These are real characters,” he insists.

Carver continues: “All the acting theories still apply to these characters. As long as [the actors] are real in their portrayal, it will read well.”

And to ensure that the performance hits its target, the A-B Tech Drama Club has been concealing a little secret weapon: their cohorts in the college’s Compensatory Education Program.

“Comp-Ed” to those in the know, the program helps mentally handicapped adults reach goals of independence. According to Carver, many of these students have been studying drama for years, and were willing allies to the drama club as it worked on Boys. Once a week, the two groups get together for theater games and to critique scenes.

“They make suggestions to us about what they like,” Carver says. Having come from group-home situations themselves, the Comp-Ed students are informed judges of the work. But do they see their own lives in Boys?

“I don’t think so,” Carver reasons. “I think they’re just there to be entertained.”

Which is the main reason anyone goes to the theater, after all.

Still, Carver isn’t oblivious to the delicate implications of his production — he has, accordingly, sent invitations to local organizations involved with the mentally handicapped.

“Here in Asheville, we have schizophrenics walking the streets because there aren’t services,” he maintains. “There’s a lot to learn.”

And he is quick to note: “The students from [Comp-Ed] will be there. Some will be in the show, in a dance scene.”

It’s a tall order for a play: to educate, build bridges and amuse its audience. But Carver’s plans are even grander than that. “There are 60 theater companies in the mountains,” Carver reveals.

So why not have a drama program at the community-college level? “AB Tech’s a real diverse campus; I’m hoping to attract drama students,” Carver asserts. “The need is there, the demand is there.”

His dream is to see the drama classes and club evolve into a full-blown Associates Degree program, preparing students to pursue advanced degrees in theater. For now, A-B Tech — not having its own studio space — shares the theater at Asheville High School, leading to what Carver deems “a nice alliance.”

“A-B Tech has afternoon college for high-school students,” he explains. Drama classes will, of course, be part of that curriculum, attracting up-and-coming college students into the growing program.

Down the road, Carver envisions teaming up with the community college’s hospitality program for dinner theater … but, for now, he’s happy to take things a step at a time.

With seasoned actors like Frank Avery on board (the theater vet’s taking on three roles), Boys is shaping up to be “one of those shows that everyone gets behind,” according to Carver.

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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