The Village Playbox is taking theatregoers back to the beach this autumn. Audiences should pack up their cars and head not to the shore, but to Haddon Heights, NJ. Something more entertaining than sand and surf awaits them there. The company is presenting first volume of Neil Simon’s Eugene trilogy: Brighton Beach Memoirs. Your correspondent attended the Saturday, 11/02/19 performance.
What is it about families that makes them so interesting? Director Steve Allen inquired in the playbill. If one is to use Mr. Simon’s fictitious Morton family as an example that answer is “a lot.” The clan included a mix of both lovable and quirky characters. Their dreams and flaws made for a lot of conflict and confrontations in a show billed as a comedy.
Ostensibly a story following Eugene Morris Jerome’s (played by Ricky Conway) transition from adolescence into manhood, the show really focused on the trials facing the Jerome’s family. Eugene’s Aunt Blanche (Jennifer Wilson) and her two daughters had moved in with his family after her husband’s passing. She’d become withdrawn and emotionally lost following the tragedy. Her youngest daughter Laurie (Sofia DiCostanzo) had a heart condition that limited her physical activity. Nora (Madeline Johnston), the elder, harbored aspirations of quitting high school to become a Broadway dancer.
Eugene’s father Jack (Dave Helgeson) worked several jobs to earn the money needed to support this extended family. The strain impacted his heath. Eugene’s brother Stanley’s (Jonathan Wallace) immaturity caused him to make reckless financial decisions. Eugene’s mother Kate (Amy Bannister) endured the most difficult task of all. She had to hold this unit together: while trying to find Blanche a husband.
Ricky Conaway played Eugene: a challenging role. Eugene served as both the narrator and a character in the story. Mr. Conway brought passion and energy to his performance. He rattled off the myriad zingers in Mr. Simon’s script with ease. The more memorable included:
“I love tense moments! Especially when I’m not the one they’re all tense about.”
“The tension in the air was so thick you could cut it with a knife. Which is more than I could say for the liver.”
“If only I was born Italian…All the best Yankess are Italian…My mother makes spaghetti with ketchup. What chance do I have?”
Fittingly, Eugene longed to become a writer.
Mr. Conway also showed the same skill when performing dramatic scenes. He and Jonathan Wallace worked very well together. The two performers made it easy to visualize them as brothers. They showed the characters’ love for one another while still fighting like siblings. During their confrontation scene Mr. Conway showed Eugene’s change from the mindset of a child into that of an adult.
Amy Bannister wrote that she was elated to be in her sixth show by her favorite playwright in her cast bio. Her enthusiasm came through in her performance as Kate. Ms. Bannister captured her character’s essence by enacting her diverse traits. She portrayed the wise and stern mother when telling Eugene to put away the cookie he took from the kitchen. She became the empathetic confidant when telling Jack that the family would find a means of managing their financial problems. Mr. Bannister expressed strong feelings during her confrontation scene with Jennifer Wilson.
Ms. Bannister and Ms. Wilson engaged in a heated argument. As Mr. Helgeson said when refereeing this dispute, “You’re having the fight you should have had 25 years ago.” Ms. Bannister became emotional to the point of crying. She and Ms. Wilson made the fight so genuine that it became unnerving to watch.
Steve Allen has a skill for finding the latent nuances within argumentative dialog. He possesses a profound understanding of the underlying emotions the characters are experiencing. Scenes that could turn into shouting matches become much deeper and meaningful through his interpretation of them. His direction of Jennifer Wilson’s confrontation scene with Madeline Johnston served as an excellent example.
Ms. Wilson’s character loved Nora, but didn’t know how to show it. Ms. Johnson’s character wanted Blanche to love her, but didn’t feel like she did. The two performers contrasted one another very well. Ms. Wilson played the low-key character to Ms. Johnston’s more animated one. Ms. Johnson is a very expressive performer in both the way she says her lines and through her non-verbal actions. The two different styles added to the conflict and made the scene much more powerful. Thanks to Mr. Allen they did so without rattling the audiences’ eardrums.
The crew at the Village Playbox always shows remarkable skill at maximizing the space allotted to them. For Brighton Beach Memoirs, set designer/builder Gary Kochey transformed the stage into the Jerome house. It contained two upstairs bedrooms, a living room and a dining room: all with the appropriate furniture. The layout allowed performers not involved in the main action to remain on-stage. It gave the audience a real sense of being in a Brooklyn home circa 1937.
Other members of the production crew included: Producer, Stage Manager and Costumer Anita Rowland; Stage Manager Donna Allen; Set Construction and Lighting/ Sound Effects Gary Kochey and Amy Bannister along with the cast also handled the costuming.
On the weekend South Jersey residents turned the clocks back, the Village Playbox turned back time to the late 1930s. The cast and crew showed that what may seem like a simpler time was anything but. To borrow one of Mr. Allen’s observations, it did show that family can be so many things. One is a wonderful evening of entertainment when described by talented playwright and a portrayed by an outstanding cast.
Brighton Beach Memoirs runs through November 16th at the Village Playbox. After that audiences can add this production to their memoirs.