A not-so-simple Simon portrayed in Gloucester
GLOUCESTER – When the right role is matched with the right actor, it can be magical.
The late Simon Geller was a singular sensation at Gloucester radio station WVCA-FM – 104.9 on your FM radio dial – for 24 years, running it alone for 13 hours a day, seven days a week, becoming an institution, even as many others were saying he belonged in an institution.
Nobody quite does irked, aggrieved, angry, annoyed or “get off my lawn” quite like actor Ken Baltin, who has authored a string of performances about characters similar to Geller, for whom the description curmudgeon could be considered an upgrade.
The world premiere production of Ken Riaf’s “My Station in Life” at Gloucester Stage Company is easy to root for, and I’ve always been a bit of a sucker for local stories told well.
Especially about characters such as Geller, who was notoriously averse to interviews, but there were nonetheless periodic stories about him through the years. Working on the North Shire for 30 years, I’d be driving around when I’d come across Geller on the radio and listen for a few minutes, not for the music but for his caustic, sarcastic pleas for donations.
Geller had been a radio engineer when he obtained an FM license at a time when there were no FM radios in most cars, most transistor radios got only AM signals.
“My Station in Life” chronicles Geller during the 1980’s, and is at its best when Geller is haranguing his audience for donations, allegedly just fending off starvation and hunting for gems from his store of classical music – eclectic is the kindest word available – and otherwise always playing the contrarian, marching to the beat of his own drummer and proud of it.
He was commercial-free for almost the entire time he was on the air but his readings of the commercials he finally airs are works of art.
Riaf also chronicles his dogged determination to fight back against the FCC in a long battle to save his license – a battle he eventually won, allowing him to essentially hit the lottery for $1 million when he finally folded his tent and sold out.
Geller was a diabetic who didn’t eat well, often walked with the aid of a cane, his contact with the outside world was sporadic at best, and he was sometimes openly hostile to those trying to help him and were concerned for him. Veronica Wiseman, Meaghan Gallo and James “Jimmy” Tarantino portray characters who do interact with Geller in some form or fashion, allowing Riaf to get inside the man a bit, including an unseen woman named “ Brooklyn” with whom he speaks by phone, but who is turned off by the constant background noise of the station.
Occasional videos have Gloucester residents voicing opinions about Geller, his station and what he has meant to the town
The quirks of his operation of the station are chronicled: the bathroom breaks, naps, or shutting down the station to run errands
Set designer Afsoon Pajoufar has pulled out all the stops with her portrayal of Geller’s home/station, a mish-mash of decrepit furniture, papers scattered hither and yon, radio equipment, medicines, a visual description of his daily struggle just to keep going.
GSC Artistic Director Robert Walsh directs, and a steady hand at the helm is exactly what any new work needs. As with any new piece, there is work to be done for Gloucester resident Riaf, a lawyer and filmmaker who has also worked as a law professor and commercial fisherman.
“My Station in Life” has its peaks and valleys and ebbs and flows, pretty much like Geller’s radio routine. It probably could be tightened up by subtracting 10 minutes from its current 100 minutes.
The piece runs only through Sunday, Oct. 28, and if you were a fan of Geller’s station or you just enjoy quirky, colorful characters smartly portrayed, get thee to Gloucester Stage Company.
The Gloucester Stage Company production of Ken Riaf’s “My Station in Life.” Directed by Robert Walsh. Set design by Afsoon Pajoufar. Lighting design by PJ Strachman. Costume design by Lara Jardullo. Sound design by David Reiffel. At the Gloucester Stage Company through Oct. 28. gloucesterstage.com.