‘Tommy’ takes its turn at Haddonfield Plays & Players

Story steeped in trauma and healing gets modern treatment at local theater.

The Who’s “Tommy” is featured at Haddonfield Plays & Players through Feb. 15. Crowded around the title character (Dennis Summerville) and his pinball machine, back row from left: Nicole Lukatis, Jake Huffner, Jerrod Ganesh (Cousin Kevin). Front Row from left: Courtney Bundens (Sally Simpson), Gianna Leonen. Back Row from left: Keian Hagstrom, Jake Van Horn, Audrey Di Enna Lacroce. At right front of machine, Gia Lukatis. (Photo credit: Catherine Widzins Photography/Special to the Sun)

A murdered father. A bewildered wife. A catatonic son. Doctors, pinball, day camp, seduction, religion and drama. How could this all turn out well in the end? 

Pete Townshend had the answer when he assumed creative duties and came up with the double-album rock opera “Tommy” back in 1969 for his iconic band, The Who. Ken Russell added his unique stamp as director for the movie version of the story in 1975, and Townshend re-shuffled the deck with a different perspective for the modern stage show in the 1990s. 

Now, director Bill Fikaris is charged with making an impact at Haddonfield Plays & Players, with the adaptation of this odyssey of healing and redemption, scheduled to be performed through Feb. 15. 

“Although it definitely was fun to put together, the essence of the story is triumph over pain. As Townsend himself said, ‘it’s an amazing journey … born in desperation, shaped by abuse and nurtured through spirituality,” Fikaris noted. 

“I also find it interesting that Townshend thought it was appropriate to celebrate the troubles with a bit of cheekiness while still laying bare the ugliness of it all.”

The musical was first performed in 1992 thanks to a collaboration between Townshend and Des MacAnuff, and made its Broadway bow the following year. It features a key alteration from the original telling: the titular character doesn’t retreat within himself after the abuse he suffered at the hands of his family and the rejection of his followers; instead there’s an opportunity for growth and reconciliation. 

“As the years passed, society has made a lot of changes — its way of thinking and its way of treating a lot of the issues that were brought forth in this musical. What we knew about child and domestic abuse then, is a very different understanding today, and with autistic children and the proper way to treat them,” Fikaris said about his opinion on Townshend’s alteration. 

“So it would seem appropriate that he would modify the ending to reflect those changes.”

Along for the ride is the young man who will play the grown-up Tommy, Denny Summerville. He spoke about his simple process for inhabiting a character which experiences such trauma that three of his senses are obliterated.

“Honestly, there isn’t much I do to get into any headspace. I just go on stage and stare at a fixed spot in the distance. If people move me or knock into me, I stay focused on that spot. I don’t really pay attention to what anyone is doing around me, I just let them move me when I need to go somewhere.” 

Embedded within the main story, is a question about the relationship between a human being and his or her spiritual guide. Summerville rejected any notion that Tommy ended up believing the hype, so to speak. 

“I don’t think he feels he’s some Christ-like figure. He’s just excited to be able to experience the world finally after years of trauma. Everyone else around him starts to paint him as a god, but I don’t think that is his own feeling,” he said.

In spite of his joy in taking on the role, you might be surprised to hear that the lead actor’s opinion on the story’s resolution differs from that of his director. 

“I’m a sucker for less ‘typical’ endings. The original where Tommy retreats back into his own headspace after his pleas for his followers to just go and experience life are rejected because they put him too high on a pedestal, that’s so much more interesting to me,” Summerville admitted. 

“Give me an ending where a man who finally feels normal is excommunicated when his friends finally realize he is only normal.”

“Tommy” will conclude its run with three shows: Thursday, Feb. 13 at 8 p.m., Friday, Feb. 14 at 8 p.m. and Saturday, February 15 at 8 p.m.