< Back to front page Text size +

A culture clash that continues to rattle

Posted by Marcia Dick  November 19, 2010 10:00 AM

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

calebneelon01.jpg Seventeen people are crowded into a classic Somerville two-family that's split between worlds. On the traditional side, there are drop ceilings and huge school portraits; on the artsy side, framed Broadway posters and playbills.

It's a fitting juxtaposition. The play they're rehearsing, "Welcome to Somerville: Permit Parking Only," by lifelong resident John Shea, shows a city that's trembling between old and new. The play gets a two-night reading this weekend.

In Shea's vision, resident permit parking is a metaphor for the city's insularity: No outsiders need apply. And though the parking policy went into effect citywide only this year, the play depicts a xenophobia you might have thought melted away years ago, or at least in the mid-2000s when the blue-collar group Save Our Somerville began forging alliances with newcomers who also wanted to preserve the city's neighborhood fabric.

In fact, the level of anti-outsider hatred, especially towards non-white immigrants, is startling. (Never mind that the angry characters all have Italian, Irish, and Greek last names.) After the first dinner with her son's Connecticut girlfriend, an unemployed boozer mom spatters bitterness at the girl's fancy vocabulary and snobby restaurant choice: Gargoyle's in Davis Square.

The 20-somethings in the play aren't so far away from the days when they used bullying, beat-downs, and vandalism to push newcomers out. A fist is more effective than a ticket.

Some of the characters are still at it. In the play, an Indian restaurant is vandalized; a Latina teenager is beat up in retaliation for a wrong her brother didn't even commit. Says Mikey Dee, one of "the Mikes," an unemployed duo that hangs out in Magoun Square, "I'm sick of everyone coming here thinking they can change how things are."

In Shea's Faulknerian city -- to use a reference the alcoholic mom would despise -- the past isn't even past. The Ball Square waitresses and Davis Square liquor store clerk are hubs of (mis)information, recirculating the old stories that stain people's current endeavors. Everyone knows troubled teen Michelle was born out of wedlock -- except Michelle.

Knowledge is power, and the mayor in particular loves to wield it. The (immigrant) teen who's accused his School Committee pal of abuse ... well whaddaya know, his brother's up on drug charges. Maybe the family will trade one dropped charge for another.

Despite the ugliness, there's something comforting about this world where everyone knows everyone and the retired guys have the same quarrel every day. The Mikes try to pin down a story:

"Who, Eddie Mahoney?"

"No, Eddie Murray."

"From over the drugstore?"

"No, from over Foss Park."

By the end of the play, Shea's world is starting to come to terms with Somerville's new normal. Pizzeria owner Dom badmouths the Indian restaurant -- until it's vandalized. "I might not like them but I know how hard it is to run a business," he says. The mayor acknowledges that while he can still pull strings, "It's not as easy as it used to be," and thus being in charge isn't as much fun anymore.

For the performers, it's not all make-believe. Shea cast the play partly with old friends from across the city like first-time performer Connie Fillios, the manager of the Hacienda restaurant where he worked as a waiter. Curtis Eames, who plays Dom the pizza guy, teaches English and drama at Somerville High; Kathryn Long, the troubled teen Michelle, is one of his students.

In fact, the challenge for city native Krystal Batzek, 25, is twisting her acting away from reality. "You are the only character in this play not from Somerville so I need to hear some Rs," Shea coaches.

Jeff Benoit, 35, thought the play got it dead-on. "100 percent," he says. The Shea family friend plays the quieter of the Mikes. "Not that I hang on the corner," he says, but "I've seen all that."

"It does. It does reflect parts of Somerville," Long says, though "up until the play I had no idea that most of this is going on."

play1.jpg Metaphor aside, the play's title resonates with Poul LaPlante (right) who plays the mayor. He once was fined for putting his Somerville resident sticker in the wrong corner of his windshield. His neighbor "got a ticket for not taking care of her garden because the guy didn't know what the plants were," he says. (The hearing clerk, a gardener himself, dismissed the ticket.)

When the Nov. 17 rehearsal ends, everyone splits except one last visitor who's hardly a visitor at all. Lori Batzek, Krystal's mom, grew up on the same street as Shea and now works for the city. In 2010, isn't the kind of vicious hatred of outsiders depicted in the play generally gone from Somerville?

"One would think that, wouldn't one?" Lori says. But "there are ignorant people in the world that don't know any better."

Lori's playing her mother, Joanie, a retired city meter maid known to old-timers as the raspy waitress at the original Paddock restaurant and to brunchers as the sarcastic counter gal at Kelly's Diner.  She was in the Osco mural in Davis Square until it was painted over. Secretly the play is a tribute to Joanie, Shea says, the only character given a real name.

Joanie's had to stop working at Kelly's "Cancer," Lori says quietly. But she's coming Friday by hook, crook, or transfer chair.

A gust of wind lifts the dining room's acoustic tiles straight off their frame. The old-timers, perhaps, are watching.

The reading of "Welcome to Somerville: Permit Parking Only" takes place tonight and tomorrow at 7 p.m. at First Church Somerville, 89 College Ave. Tickets are $15. Non-residents who drive to the play should make sure not to park on the side streets. Learn more at

Contact Danielle at

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article