Upon first hearing Vashti Summervill's lilting voice, I could easily pick her out of the group photo on the flyer for Closer Than Ever, an acclaimed off-Broadway musical soon to be performed at The Flicks (she's the only one laughing). A trained soprano and head of a children's performance troupe called Open Door Studios, Summervill is one of five local professionals (including husband Chad, Shakespeare Festival alums Lynn Hofflund and Geoffrey Bennett, and Mobius Strip pianist Mike Lemieux) who have been franticly memorizing tunes, choreographing moves and stringing together the details for a collection of one-acts written by Richard Maltby Jr. and David Shire. The show promises authentic adult cabaret and a chance to raise money for a little-known volunteer organization called Corpus Christi House (CCH).
"Chad and I wanted to bring something grown-up and artistically different to Boise and also to raise funds for CCH. The owners of the Flicks were involved in founding it last winter and were happy to offer up the theater," Summervill said. While working in Seattle, she performed one of the leads in Closer and thought it would be the perfect mix of challenging material, lighthearted comedy and touching insight into what it means to be human. "The set is very simple--just stools and a table, and our costumes are black clothes dressed up with simple props. The common thread is that we're all urban folks dealing with some kind of midlife crisis ... funny that a show about spoiled baby boomers is supposed to benefit the homeless. No social justice there," she giggled. "But we're hoping to raise a little money and a lot of awareness to the fact that CCH is out there. It's a great organization, and I hope we get an audience."
Later that day, attorney Rick Skinner gave me the scoop on how CCH got started. His longtime friend, Tim Cooper, a Mennonite pastor turned wandering prophet, got him involved in a free breakfast program six years ago, and since then he has been donating time and money to help serve those less fortunate than himself.
"Aside from the breakfast, there wasn't much going on in the way of daytime shelters, so some of us got together and started looking for a place," Skinner said. The search was a struggle due to zoning issues and personal conflicts with neighboring businesses, but the group finally found a nice space at 525 Americana Boulevard. Cooper and his crew renovated the building and began piecing together the kind of place where homeless people could get real help--not just an earful of scripture and a bed for the night. "Thanks to so many generous donations, our original vision was realized. CCH provides showers, clean clothes, laundry facilities, computers, employment counseling, haircuts, classes, coffee, phones, an address and a nice place to get out of the heat," Skinner said. Despite having a full time job, he makes time every Tuesday and every other Saturday to serve breakfast at Corpus Christi House. The selection includes cereal, fruit, bread, bagels, muffins, hard-boiled eggs and sandwich materials; and volunteers serve until the food runs out. "We usually serve about 60 to 80 people per day, but the idea is not just to meet physical needs--it's more about treating people as guests, forming relationships and friendships as human beings, not just people waiting in line," said Skinner. "I've gotten to know some people in the years I've been involved, and it has been a very positive experience. I probably get a lot more out of it than they do, but it's amazing what happens when you treat someone like a worthwhile person."
Driving down Americana, I spotted CCH. Two men walked toward the door in front of me, and the second held it open and smiled as I ducked inside. The atmosphere was immediately warm and bustling. Without being crowded, the place was full of people playing cards, talking on the phone, sorting through clothes, smoking on the patio and catching up on the daily news. I noticed right away how clean and orderly everything was, from the mugs hanging on the wall to the marigolds planted in the patio garden. Everyone I saw met my gaze with kind acknowledgment and I had no idea how to tell a volunteer from a patron. Just then, a Santa-ish volunteer burst through the backdoor asking for help. A stocky man wearing a San Diego DEA cap followed him out the door, and I figured one more set of hands couldn't hurt. The three of us carried boxes of eggs inside, and I got to know my companion a little better.
His name is Brian Watrous, and he has been on every side of the homeless issue. Having walked across the country and spent time on the streets from California to New York, he knows what discrimination and scorn feel like and how hard it is to find a place to go to the bathroom, let alone sleep.
"A lot of places don't care about people--even places that are set up to do just that, but this place treats people like individuals instead of statistics, giving them a hand up rather than a hand out," Watrous said. He explained that the biggest hindrances to homeless people finding jobs are the lack of an address, a phone and a clean set of clothes. "Twenty-five percent of homeless people aren't trying to get better, but the other 75 percent get penalized, especially women and children. CCH provides the things they need to catch that break," Watrous said. Looking around the room, I saw evidence in the way people enthusiastically circled classifieds and encouraged each other with friendly handshakes and translated phone calls. Thinking back to my chat with Summervill, I realized how fitting the subject matter of Closer is. The superficial details may not match, but the message is that we are all human, we all suffer, and kindness is its own reward.
Closer Than Ever, August 22, 23, 29 and 30, 7 p.m., $18, Theater One, The Flicks, 646 Fulton, 342-4288.