Langley Players aim to make you laugh and think

It’s morning in the city. Shorty rolls cigarettes on a bench while Jim looks for change in phone boxes. Big Tom is already drunk.

The men trade stories about doughnuts and smokes, sisters and girlfriends, shelters and welfare.

Acts of kindness follow acts of selfishness, and humour keeps pace with despair.

But it’s early yet. It’s election day, and an aboriginal is running for office. Anything can happen.

Filled with abundant humour and sharp insight, Jim and Shorty, the upcoming comedy-drama from Langley Players, gives a human face to life on the street, as three lonely men fumble to make a connection.

But injecting comedy into such a sad and often sensitive subject requires a deft hand, both on the part of a playwright and anyone who chooses to mount the production.

Surrey’s Marko Hohlbien was certainly mindful of the balancing act he faced when he decided he wanted to direct the play, written by Canadian actor/writer Alex Poch-Goldin.

It was a story he wanted to tell so badly, though, that he pitched it twice at different theatres before convincing Langley Players’ selection committee to find a space for it in their limited season.

“By infusing what is essentially a very sad story with humour, the playwright has taken an interesting approach to the subject,” said Hohlbien.

Generally speaking, the director pointed out, when people are living on the streets, there are issues of substance abuse or mental illness at play — often both.

That’s certainly the case in Jim and Shorty, where characters “have a habit of repeating themselves and saying what we think are pretty outrageous things,” said Hohlbien.

This is where much of the play’s humour arises, he added. But while audiences are laughing, they’re also feeling a certain level of discomfort about it.

“At least, that’s what I’m hoping.”

Hohlbien — who is fresh from last year’s award-winning production of Mending Fences at Surrey Little Theatre — chose the play in part, he explained, because it was written by a Canadian.

“Then there is the subject matter. As I dove into it I began to notice that I knew nothing about (the plight of) homeless people.”

“The writer has done a marvelous job,” he said.

“It’s gentle — it’s not taking a hammer and beating you on the head with it,” said Hohlbien.

“There’s no (foul) language, no negativity, nothing blocking you. You can see the inside of that world without fear.

“You (come to) understand the life of someone you wouldn’t normally communicate with in day-to-day life.”

The three-member cast includes Langley resident Mitch Kapustinsky, making his Langley Players acting debut as Big Tom, an aboriginal Canadian.

“Mitch is playing the part of a native. He’s not a native, but he did his homework on the subject,” Hohlbien said.

“His type of energy and commitment is what I wanted.”

Previously Kapustinsky has worked behind the scenes, doing sound and lighting. He has done a bit of improv in the past, as well, so this isn’t his first time on stage, but compared to his cast mates, he is a relative newcomer.

Surrey’s Dann Wilhelm plays Jim, a man who is constantly after something. Local theater goers will recognize Wilhelm from past productions for the Fraser Valley Gilbert & Sullivan Society including roles in The Pirates of Penzance and The Gondoliers. This is his first production for Langley Players and his first non-musical play in seven years.

Also new to the Langley Players is Reginald Pillay as Shorty, who can always be found on this bench.

Pillay has appeared in the Fraser Valley Gilbert & Sullivan Society’s productions of Iolanthe and H.M.S. Pinafore. His non-musical roles include A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Beach House Theatre) and A Talent for Murder (Stage 43).

Currently, Pillay can be seen on TV or at the movies in the Encorp Return-It commercial, playing opposite a juice carton-shaped puppet.

This is Hohlbein’s first time directing for Langley Players, but regular patrons will recognize him as Oliver Pemberton in I Remember You.

Jim and Shorty runs Thursdays to Sundays from Jan. 17 to Feb. 16 at the Langley Playhouse, 4307  200 St. in Brookswood.  Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, with Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. All tickets are $15. For reservations, please call 604-534-7469, or email reservations@langleyplayers.com.Visit www.langleyplayers.com for more information.

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