Over the years, Ken Baltin has played roles as diverse as Willy Loman in “Death of a Salesman,” Lord Capulet in “Romeo and Juliet,” a real estate agent in “Glengarry Glen Ross” and a theater impresario in “Shakespeare in Love.” Now the Jewish veteran actor, of Needham, is relishing the chance to portray real life Jewish Gloucester one-man radio station broadcaster Simon Geller (1920-1995) in the Gloucester Stage Company’s “premiere of My Station in Life” by Ken Riaf.
As Baltin recently told the Journal, “[Simon] was an interesting guy. He was an enigma, a bit of a wanderer. He moved around (from his native Lowell to New Jersey, Gloucester and eventually New York).” In preparing to play Geller, he listened to old recordings of Geller being interviewed.
At the same time, Baltin welcomed playwright Ken Riaf’s theorizing about what life was like for the iconoclastic recluse. “There’s mysteriousness in his (Geller’s) background and whom he talked to,” said Baltin, noting that Riaf had met Geller.“He must have felt somewhat of an outsider,” said Baltin about Geller. “He must have experienced some degree of shunning or isolation. He was the least legendary person to become a legend … he was a schlimazel kind of guy, a sad clown.” At the same time, Baltin pointed out that Geller was well-known in Gloucester, given that 300 people showed up to a staged reading of the play last summer.
“He’s a guy who left his mark,” said Baltin. “He had a strong backbone.” To judge from Afsoon Pajoufar’s ostensibly disheveled but brilliantly detailed set (with newspapers and envelopes strewn around his apartment, clothes on the furniture, and a mess of utensils and food-related items in the kitchen) hoarding radio technician Simon Geller seems like someone who accomplished little in his life, with little relevance today. But through recreating the home broadcaster’s one-man radio station WVC-FM, (also known as the Voice of Cape Ann) Riaf demonstrates just how relevant Geller truly was. By turns folksy and touching, Riaf’s disarming memory play captures representative moments and key times from the last years of Geller’s 24-year radio stint (1964-1988.) The play combines personal commentary and classical music selections by the likes of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Liszt and even Verdi.
Befitting the principled curmudgeon, Riaf’s thoughtful play avoids easy sentimentality and never glosses over the disquieting aspects of Geller’s personality and life. Geller’s dialogue on air as well as in conversation is richly peppered with epithets. He tosses bills cavalierly right to the floor after the mailman delivers them. He seems fairly ungrateful to a caring woman named Mary who brings him home-cooked fare, though the ‘Jewish Yankee’ – as one Gloucester resident calls him – flatly tells her that he does not eat pork. By contrast, he does resolutely resist broadcasting commercials and includes news, weather and sports in his on-air talks. If Geller actually had a listening audience of about 43,000 in the station’s 35 mile radius, he nevertheless remained an iconoclast – even taking naps while some symphonies played, and unabashedly admitting to knowing little about the music he played.
Under Robert Walsh’s smartly unobtrusive direction, Ken Baltin gives a bravura performance as Geller. He captures the crusty broadcaster’s rough speaking, and demonstrates his physical struggles with a cane. At the same time, he conveys Geller’s angst and recurring paranoia.
Audience members will warm to his rich portrayal and the good fortune that finally greets him, while also recognizing the troubles caused by his hoarding and stubbornness. Veronica Anastasio Wiseman vividly captures an ensemble of characters affecting his world – notably well-intentioned, food-bearing Mary, and a pro bono lawyer who tries to aid him. Meagan, a junior at Gloucester High who has been active in the company’s youth acting workshops, brings appealing charm to generous helper Maris.
“The Dazzle,” an earlier play about two real life hoarding reclusive brothers, focuses on their sadly unfulfilled lives. By contrast, “My Station in Life” serves as a timely wake-up call to the inherent value and influence of a very different drummer.
“My Station in Life,” Gloucester Stage Company, through Oct. 28. 978-281-4433 or gloucesterstage.com.