From grief’s ashes

Photo by Gary M. Baranec Parker Cook, as “Jessica Tramonte,” and Katie Kensinger, as her mother “Helen,” talk about single moms going to work in the production of “Porches” by Tom Sweitzer and Merideth Bean McMath.

For Altoona native Tom Sweitzer the immense grief experienced when his beloved mother died served as a catalyst for creativity, a deep appreciation for human connectedness and gratitude for his hometown.

“Porches,” a musical drama co-written by Tom Sweitzer and Merideth Bean McMath, will be performed for the third time later this month at the reopening of the Mishler Theatre, which received extensive interior renovations this summer.

These shows serve as a fundraiser for theater steward Blair County Arts Foundation to continue renovations, celebrates recently completed seat and carpeting replacement and celebrates the City of Altoona’s sesquicentennial.

From the torturous depths of grief’s ashes, “Porches” arises and pays homage to the neighbors who assisted Sweitzer during his growing years. Set in 1944 Altoona, four families experience the ups and downs of America during World War II when the railroad and Altoona played crucial roles in troop movement and economics.

The title references how the closely set homes facilitated cross-porch conversation and created a readily accessible network of close friendships. In a time long before social media, friendships were between neighbors, who exchanged news and support from their porches.

“My neighbors became family,” Sweitzer said. “Neighbors helped one another and the porches is where you would find people and help was a shout away.”

Characters are based on Sweitzer’s neighbors when he lived at 121 Second Ave. While Sweitzer plans to attend the Friday opening show, he will not produce, direct or star in the play as he did in 1999 and 2005. Instead, Christopher Cook is entrusted with producing, directing and playing the role originally played by Sweitzer 20 years ago.

“I want this show to be a community event … a re-telling of our history. We want popele who have never been to a show to come out and celebrate our hometown,” Cook said.

“Porches is a reminder to love your neighbor and when we think of those we loved who have passed on, just know they are always with us and all we need to do is sit quietly on our porch at night and listen for the whisper,” Sweitzer states in a letter to attendees in the show program booklet.

Written in his early 20s, “Porches” is one of many plays Sweitzer has authored, appeared in or directed during his career. Today, Sweitzer is a certified music therapist and co-founder of a therapeutic arts organization which assists people facing multiple physical, emotional and mental challenges.

Now 46, Sweitzer said he long ago made peace with his father for the hurts experienced during a turbulent home life, where his father experienced mental illness and used alcohol to assauge his own hurts.

Now executive director of A Place to Be, located in Middleburg, Va., Sweitzer brings to others what Altoona’s music and theater “families” brought to him, a safe haven where mentors in the music and performing arts help heal the wounds of living. After his mother’s death, Sweitzer learned his parents hadn’t married. In a TEDx Talk, Sweitzer describes his mother as morbidly obese with multiple untreated health problems.

“We were best friends,” Sweitzer said of his mom. “She always listened to me and understood my creative, crazy mind.”

Also, Sweitzer found acceptance and nurturing at Mishler Theatre, where his dad served as janitor.

“Without the Altoona Community Theatre, friends Steve Helsel, Kate Shaffer and, especially, without the Mishler in my life, I don’t know if I would have survived. It was a place where I could express how I felt and where I felt whole. I felt like I was home at the Mishler.”

Another “touchstone” in his life, he said, was DelGrosso’s Amusement Park, formerly Bland’s Park, founded by his mother’s uncle.

“I grew up in that park,” Sweitzer said, and noted it is one of the play’s main sponsors. DelGrosso is now operated by his cousin Michael. “I am tremendously grateful for my cousins’ support.”

In another serendipitous connection, the play’s director Christopher Cook, 38, inspired the role of “The Paperboy,” when he delivered The Altoona Mirror to the Sweitzer family for two years.

“It’s all circular in many respects,” Sweitzer said. “My neighbors were my adoptive family and Chris is like a brother to me.”

Cook, 38, serves on the board of BCAF and suggested a third rendition of “Porches” to celebrate the City’s founding and the theater’s reopening and found fellow board members to be excited with the idea.

“I’m deeply connected to this play and I’m honored. I’ve wanted to be part of the past two productions but circumstances prevented me from participating,” Cook said. He plays the lead role as Daniel Dunio.

“This is a very dramatic show and the songs are emotional and tug at the heart strings,” Cook said. “We want to send the audience home with an experience that runs the gamut of emotions from tears to joy.”

Staff writer Patt Keith can be reached at 949-7030.

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