Ken Baltin has been named Outstanding Actor by Boston theater critics for his portrayal of Gloucester's Simon Geller in a new play written by Gloucester's Ken Riaf.
He won the award in the small or fringe theater category at the 37th Elliot Norton Awards presented earlier this week by the Boston Theater Critics Association at the Huntington Avenue Theatre. The guest of honor was the Broadway-bound Faye Dunaway.
Gloucester Stage Company produced the play "My Station in Life" last season, bringing in enthusiastic audiences each night. Riaf penned this unusual tale about Geller, a classical music-loving curmudgeon who single-handedly ran a radio station from his Gloucester home on a shoe-string budget.
Geller operated WVCA 104.9, known as the Voice of Cape Ann, for 24 years from 1964 to 1988. But his journey became a fight of David and Goliath proportions when for more than a decade, he battled to retain his license when it faced challenges from a broadcasting conglomerate.
The Federal Communications Commission proceedings over the potentially lucrative radio license made headlines across the country for years.
Geller's distinct mix of music and daily diatribes, on affairs both local and otherwise, provided colorful fodder for the script. Baltin's performance of this peculiar character resonated with the critics.
Gloucester Stage Artistic Director Robert Walsh said he was thrilled for all involved.
"I'm so excited for both Kens," Walsh said. "For Ken Baltin, who was so compelling creating a portrait of a multi-faceted and complex individual and not just 'an old codger.' And for Ken Riaf who drew the scenarios and provided the foundation for Ken Baltin to build a wonderful story."
Baltin had never heard of Geller when he first read the script for a staged reading at Gloucester Stage in 2017 but he was intrigued.
"I realized there was something beloved in this individual when 300 people showed up for the Sunday night reading," he said. "The character was fascinating and it touched me in very personal way that I jumped into it with both feet."
This past season, Gloucester Stage decided to take on a full production of the play.
"When we staged it, we went miles deeper into the character. I was completely immersed months and months before we started rehearsal," Baltin said.
In a strange twist, Baltin said he could relate to Geller because a cousin, "a radio guy," reminded him a great deal of the Gloucester man.
"He was a black sheep of the family," Baltin said of the cousin. "He disappeared from where he grew up and walked away from his family and disappeared into Vermont, remaining out of touch."
When the family much later learned this cousin was diagnosed with a terminal illness, Baltin went to see this prodigal relative.
"He had become a legend in the area on the radio, and as a supporter of nonprofits and schools and veteran groups that no one down here knew about. When I went around town with him to buy clothes, people came out of the stores to see him, and when he died, lines of people wanted to give eulogies," Baltin said. "Simon was sort of a black sheep too, though he was more of a hoarder and recluse. But it was clear Simon found an element of kinship with people in Gloucester or they found an element of kinship with him."
Baltin said he felt it was a tribute to his cousin to play Simon Geller.
"Receiving the Elliot Norton award was very meaningful to be recognized for this work," he said.
For Gloucester Stage Company's 40 anniversary season, Riaf has a new play that will debut at a reading as part of the theater's Never Dark events on July 21 at 7 p.m. This past winter, he wrote "Think of Me Tuesday." The story centers around perennial Fishtown mayoral candidate Jim "Buddy" Chum and his quixotic campaign battle against the forces of so-called development.
Gail McCarthy can be reached at 978-675-2706, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.