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Welcome to Keene: Playwright pens work set in his hometown

In 2014, Chicago-based playwright Brian James Polak noticed his hometown in New Hampshire was on the national news more often than usual.

That year, the Elm City found itself at the center of national attention more than once, with stories and videos on the riots the weekend of the Keene Pumpkin Festival, the Keene Police Department’s BearCat and the “Robin Hooders,” who followed Keene parking enforcement officers and put coins in expired meters.

“For the first time in my life, I had that thought, ‘Back when I was a kid, things weren’t like this.’ And then I realized, oh, my parents could say the same thing, and their parents could say the same thing, and their parents,” said Polak, who graduated from Keene High School in 1992. “And I realized that the change is what’s constant.”

It sparked an idea. And now, five years later, the Monadnock Region native — whose family still lives in Spofford is working with two theater companies to debut a new play called “Welcome to Keene, N.H.”

Though Keene provides the setting, the play isn’t intended to be “biographical,” Polak said. Rather, the city is a vehicle to write about the small-town experience as communities across the country confront issues such as the opioid crisis, the rise of the alt-right and the prevalence of firearms, he explained.

And the inspiration is two-fold, Polak noted. He also wrote “Welcome to Keene, N.H.” as a “response and homage” to Thornton Wilder’s iconic work “Our Town,” which the famous playwright worked on during residencies at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough.

“The reason I think ‘Our Town’ has been produced over and over and over again for almost 80, 90 years now is because Thornton Wilder so perfectly created a blueprint for what it means to be a human being in the general sense,” Polak said. “... And when I wrote ‘Welcome to Keene, N.H.,’ I decided to write about what it means to be a human being today, right now, in America.”

As in “Our Town,” “Welcome to Keene, N.H.” is anchored by a narrator who guides the story. But Polak employs a Keene parking attendant to introduce the city’s cast of characters, from the Korean owner of a Chinese restaurant to a tennis coach with a “dark past,” as his website describes it.

To create the characters, Polak said he drew from his own experiences and memories without the intention of representing any specific individual in Keene — though the part of the narrator does have some basis in reality.

“The main inspiration for this character were those videos that were put on YouTube several years ago about the Robin Hooders of Keene harassing the parking officers,” he said. “I was so embarrassed when I saw those videos, and when those stories were making national news, it was really sad to watch, and it was really humiliating to say, ‘That’s my town where I grew up.’ ”

The play will premiere next year in productions by Strawdog Theatre in Chicago and PURE Theatre in Charleston, S.C., Polak said. For Sharon Graci, co-founding artistic director of PURE Theatre, the play stood out partly for its sharp, well-formed dialogue and partly for the way it calls back to “Our Town,” she said.

“I think what’s great about ‘Welcome to Keene, N.H.’ is, even though the location is specific, the forces in play within the community or within the town are not unfamiliar to most people,” she said. “Even if you live in a larger community, I think that they are very, very human conditions and very, very human wants and very, very human needs, and they are very much part of modern dialogue in our communities.”

Though at this point there are no specific plans to mount a production in Keene, Polak said he’d like to see the play performed here in the future.

“I think there are probably people that would be upset if Keene was portrayed in any negative way. But I wrote this play with a deep amount of respect for my hometown, and sensitivity. And it’s not specifically about Keene,” he said.

“It’s representative of the world at large, as I see it.”

Michael Moore / Sentinel Staff 

Carly Emerson of Keene inflates a float for her 6-month-old son at Otter Brook Dam beach in Keene on Thursday afternoon.

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Plea deal rejected for Swanzey man accused of chaining woman to bed

A judge on Thursday rejected a proposed plea deal for a Swanzey man accused of confining his girlfriend and a young child to a bedroom overnight.

“I’m not gonna accept the sentence,” Cheshire County Superior Court Judge David W. Ruoff said at the end of a 10-minute hearing. “Some cases just need to go to trial. I think this is one of them.”

The agreement reached by the case’s prosecutor and an attorney for Michael J. Grant, 33, involved a two-year jail sentence with the possibility of release on electronic monitoring after a year, as well as a suspended sentence and a requirement to obtain a psychological evaluation.

Grant is charged with two felonies — criminal restraint and reckless conduct — as well as misdemeanor counts of domestic violence–false imprisonment, reckless conduct–domestic violence and endangering the welfare of a child.

He has been held without bail at the Cheshire County jail since his May 10 arrest.

Prosecutors allege Grant chained his girlfriend to a bed and confined her to the bedroom overnight while he went to work. They also claim an 8-year-old boy, whom Grant knew, was locked in the room with her.

Assistant Cheshire County Attorney Kerry O’Neill said the boy told a school counselor what was happening.

According to an affidavit written by Swanzey police Lt. Joseph DiRusso, the N.H. Division for Children, Youth and Families notified police on May 9 of the boy’s statements. Officers went to Grant’s residence in Swanzey that night — a single-family house with bedrooms rented by several different tenants — and found his bedroom locked from the outside, according to the affidavit.

After speaking to a woman through the door, police pried the door open and saw her chained to the bed by her ankle, DiRusso wrote. The boy was in the room sleeping but wasn’t restrained, according to the affidavit, which says a bucket had been left on the floor, apparently as a toilet.

The woman told police Grant confined her to the room when he left but “would not cooperate much more with an investigation,” DiRusso wrote.

In court Thursday, Ruoff said the two-page affidavit conveys a “very perplexing picture” and asked the attorneys to justify the proposed sentence.

“Chaining someone to a bed is very, very serious,” the judge said. “So is there an issue with the case?”

O’Neill, the prosecutor, said the case is complicated, and the woman has not been cooperative with police. But O’Neill said her understanding is that Grant was accusing the woman of cheating and she agreed to be chained.

“This is a very controlling defendant, I think,” O’Neill said.

After rejecting the plea deal, Ruoff left the courtroom and did not further explain his reasoning.

In an abusive, controlling relationship, a person may submit to something like being confined in a room, but that doesn’t mean it’s voluntary, said Linda Douglas, a trauma-informed services specialist at the N.H. Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, a statewide advocacy and prevention group.

“Someone who is capable of tying their partner to the bed and locking them in the bedroom is certainly capable of a whole lot more,” Douglas said in an interview Thursday, after a reporter gave her a summary of the case.

That fear can get a partner to acquiesce, even without overt threats or physical force, she said. “That’s what coercive control is all about.”

For similar reasons, domestic-violence survivors can be reluctant to cooperate with police, Douglas said.

Domestic violence often goes unreported because victims fear reprisal or want to protect the perpetrator, among other reasons, according to a 2017 report from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.

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Keene's 'taxi king' remembered for helping those in need

When folks in and around the Elm City were down on their luck and stranded without a ride, Anthony S. “Tony” Signore was there to help, those who knew him say.

Signore, a Keene resident and owner of Tony’s Taxi, died last Thursday at the age of 77.

He was originally from Rhode Island, and worked as a car dealer there before settling in Keene, where he eventually set up his taxi business, according to his obituary.

Good friend Peter Pillsbury said he met Signore while working at the Keene Chrysler dealership in the early ’90s when Signore was working as a vehicle wholesaler.

Pillsbury chuckled when recalling his first impression of the man.

“A guy that’s 5 feet-nothing, but walked around like he was 10 feet tall,” Pillsbury, of Keene, said.

Both Pillsbury and Signore’s life partner, Susan Goodchild — who also lives in Keene and is now running the business — said he had a deep sense of empathy, and would often give free rides to those who needed one but couldn’t afford it.

“If somebody was down and out, he’d cheer them up,” Goodchild said. “If somebody needed a safe ride to go home because they had a little too much to drink, he made sure they got in safe. If, you know, somebody needed groceries at the store, he’d pick them up. He was just so kind and wonderful.”

Many of these rides, Pillsbury said, came with no credit system required.

“He did it on the house until they got to a point where they abused it,” he said.

Steve Lindsey, a former area cab driver who met Signore when they were both working for Adventure Taxi, said he experienced this generosity personally.

“I’d be walking home in a snowstorm, and he’d come up behind me,” said Lindsey, who left taxi-driving in the rear-view after nearly a decade. Despite his having no money for the fare, Lindsey said, “he’d give me a ride home.”

Goodchild recalled Signore ferrying patients home from the emergency room at 3 a.m. when they didn’t have a wallet or any other personal belongings with them.

For the paying customers, she said Signore went out of his way to be accommodating — keeping tabs on appointments at Cheshire Medical Center or even hair salons and making sure those without any other mode of transportation could be on time.

And over the course of all his years behind the wheel, he picked up a nickname.

“He was the king of the cab drivers,” Lindsey said, likening him to another well-known driver, Joanie Copley of Ideal Taxi Co. “Once (Copley) passed, Tony became the icon of the night.”

He had style and grace, dignity and pride — a debonair man with a larger-than-life personality that made Keene a more interesting place, according to Lindsey.

Another endearing quality, Goodchild noted, was Signore’s near-savant-like knowledge of American geography, including every state capital.

“He was just so funny. He had such stories to tell from all of the traveling when he was a car salesman,” Goodchild said. “He’d been in every state, and he could tell you the capital, and somebody would say where they’re from, and he’d say, ‘I know where that is!’ And name it right off. He could remember the buildings in that city and what he went to see. It was amazing.”

She added that when Signore hit hard times of his own, the good faith he put in the community came back around to support him, particularly at his favorite sandwich shop.

After Signore suffered congestive heart failure, Goodchild said he had to have a leg amputated because of a blood clot. He was sidelined from the business and had trouble keeping up with medical bills, she said.

That’s when D’Angelo Grilled Sandwiches on West Street stepped in, according to Goodchild, with a donation jar that raised $1,200 to help with his expenses.

“He was always for the underdog,” she said. “He always helped anybody that needed help, and he was just an amazing guy. He never judged anybody.”

And his illness and surgery didn’t keep him off the road for good. Rather than use a modified vehicle, Signore preferred to drive with his left leg, according to Goodchild.

Now running the business with two other drivers, she said she hopes the Tony’s Taxi sign emblazoned on the side of the cars will remind people of her partner and his generous spirit.

“We have him pictured in the heavens with his own Tony’s Taxi up there.”