By Tom Hauck
A piece of Gloucester history shines in “My Station in Life,” a captivating new play by Ken Riaf making its world premier at the Gloucester Stage Company through October 28. Starring Ken Baltin, this dramatic comedy retells the battle waged by classical radio station owner-operator Simon Geller against his various enemies including the FCC, the national radio chain scheming to take over his license, his own listeners whom he regularly insulted, and most of all his own inner demons.
Ably supported by actors Meagan Gallo, James Tarantino, and Veronica A. Wiseman, under the direction of Robert Walsh, and on a cluttered set designed by Afsoon Pajoufar, Baltin holds our attention for ninety minutes as he shuffles around his radio station/apartment, whines about being broke, attacks anyone who displeases him, plays classical records, takes his insulin injections, eats canned soup, and (most famously in real life) takes audible bathroom breaks while the microphone is hot.
The very definition of “curmudgeon,” Baltin manages to make Geller incredibly annoying yet deeply likeable. His Quixotic dedication to what he calls “beautiful music,” his spasmodically quivering lower lip, his trouser belt that is rarely fully fastened, and his casual disregard for any norms of behavior melt into a portrait of a guy we all know and, at holiday parties, do our best to avoid.
His behavior is at times truly offensive. One of his flippant and erroneous “weather reports” may have had serious consequences for a fishing boat caught in an unexpected storm, and on the air he begs for donations but rudely rejects a cash gift brought to him by a caring neighbor.
Integral to the production is the sound design by David Reiffel. Indeed, aside from the occasional visitor to Geller’s pack-rat hovel, his connection with the outside world is through sound: the ring of the phone, the knock on the door, the melodies of the records he plays. Yet aside from one brief sequence in which Geller vigorously “conducts” one of the pieces he’s playing, we don’t know the root of his dedication to the music he champions; he exhibits very little knowledge about the records he slaps onto the turntable, and demands that his listeners—there were 90,000 in real life—not call him to get more information. In his mind, the commercial-free music he broadcasts is a precious gift to his audience, and we should be grateful for it and not complain.
Funny, wrenching, and always fascinating, “My Station in Life” is a stunning finale to the GSC season. Don’t miss it! Now through October 28. For tickets call 978-281-4433, or visit gloucesterstage.com.
All photos Gary Ng