Music

Brighton Beach Memoirs at the Village Playbox

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 She’d become withdrawn and emotionally lost following the tragedy.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.

 

“The Salem Witch Trials: A Conspiracy of Witches” by Mickey DiCamillo at the Historical Society of Moorestown

In the pale light of a waxing full moon I ascended the walkway to Smith-Cadbury Mansion. My stroll past the old Hopkins home allegedly spooked by a “blue lady” and the apparition of a Quaker gentleman put me in the frame of mind for a scary story. Mickey DiCamillo, the President of the Historical Society of Moorestown, didn’t disappoint. He delivered the final chapter of his trilogy of terror on the Salem Witch Trials. I attended his “A Conspiracy of Witches” lecture on October 24th in the kitchen at the Society’s headquarters.

Of the three installments on the “Essex Witchcraft Crisis”, as people in the 1690s called it, I found this one the most terrifying. Mr. DiCamillo’s use of imagery in depicting of Abagail Williams’ vision of a coven of witches gathering on her guardian’s property gave me chills. The pontifications of a sinister figure she viewed among them vowing to destroy Massachusetts Bay Colony in order to raise it up again in the name of Satan added to the dreadfulness. Interestingly, the most frightful parts of this program didn’t involve the supernatural. The most unsettling segments concerned the conduct of society itself.

As with the other lectures in the series, Mr. DiCamillo shared some amusing anecdotes about the events. The most gripping concerned the fate of George Burroughs. When asked if he had any last words while standing on the gallows, this convicted witch recited the “Lord’s Prayer.” As people believed witches didn’t possess the ability to pray the on-lookers became confused. They turned to a renowned witchcraft “expert” among them. Cotton Mather utilized some specious logic to justify the execution continue as scheduled.

Mr. DiCamillo’s depiction of Rebecca Nurse’s fate delivered chills, as well. The jury initially found the 71 year old innocent on charges of witchcraft. Instead of accepting the verdict the judge questioned the panel. He reminded them that Mrs. Nurse made a cryptic comment during the proceedings: “Those used to come among us.” As the magistrate and the jury interpreted her remarks differently, they asked the defendant what she meant. Mrs. Nurse didn’t reply to their inquiry. Some speculate her advanced age rendered her partially deaf. The jury reversed its own verdict.

Mrs. Nurse retained a lot of support in the community. These people petitioned the governor to pardon her. He did. In an unprecedented move, the Salem judges refused to accept it. There was only one sentence for those who were found guilty without confessing to witchcraft. Mrs. Nurse went to the gallows on July 19, 1692.

I found the story of Bridget Bishop the most intriguing. In either the 1670s or 1680s, she was accused of witchcraft and tried. She received a “not guilty” verdict and returned to her normal life. In 1692, the newly established Court of Oyer and Terminer decided to re-hear her case. There being no concept of “double jeopardy” in Puritan juris prudence, she became the first person tried in the Salem Witch Trials. Prosecutors used the same evidence presented against her the first time. This time the jury convicted and sentenced her to execution. Mr. DiCamillo explained, “This shows that the political and social climate had changed. It was the same evidence with a new mentality.”

The lecture’s real horror began when Mr. DiCamillo placed the witch trials in their historical context. After revoking the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s charter, the British government established a new one. The number of people imprisoned for witchcraft appalled new Governor Sir William Phips. He established a court in his first official order. The Court of Oyer and Terminer did reduce the number of people waiting to be tried for witchcraft. It did so in a way that made it infamous.

Everyone who appeared before this court received a guilty verdict. Part of this stemmed from its willingness to accept weak evidence. In his first lecture on the Salem Witch Trials, Mr. DiCamillo described the types of evidence accepted during a witchcraft trial. A confession provided the most compelling one. Others included “spectral evidence.” This entailed a witch appearing in ghostly form to its victim. He described another as “anger resulting in mischief.” The latter referred to two people getting into an argument and then something bad happening to one of the participants.

While dubious, the court accepted these types of “evidence.” They applied it so liberally that 20 people met their deaths at the gallows. It may seem odd, but those who admitted practicing witchcraft did not receive death sentences. In return for a confession, a person would then testify against other “witches.” As Mr. DiCamillo noted, it didn’t do much good to execute a star witness.

At the end, Mr. DiCamillo attempted to answer the biggest question about the trials: why did they happen? He identified three elements that combined to make this bizarre event possible. Puritan society contained many factions. A vulnerable government led people to question its legitimacy, future and effectiveness. A “fear factor” served as the third component.

As with his discussion of the flu pandemic of 1918, Mr. DiCamillo found something positive in the tragedy. Both Benjamin Franklin and John Adams grew up in Massachusetts while the Puritan system of government fractured. The principles they learned in that environment inspired them to help build a new system of government: one predicated on the rule of law and a separation of church and state.

The Salem Witch Trials still serve as the benchmark for a society run amok. As Mr. DiCamillo noted, the expression “witch hunt has become a part of the American vernacular. The factors that led to the events of 1692 have repeated themselves throughout our history; most notably in the Red Scare of the 1950s. Let’s hope there are more Mickey DiCamillos out there raising awareness about the aspects leading to this spectacle. As he chillingly noted, “I don’t blame the children. The adults could’ve put a stop to this at any time.” Let’s hope that next time they do.

Review: Rush – Clockwork Angels Tour

The ‘countdown’ is over Rush fans! Just like ‘clockwork’, following their latest studio album: ‘presto’! They released a live one recorded during the subsequent tour. While I have the MP3 version, I’m not entirely a ‘digital man’ so I made a ‘headlong flight’ to the store to grab the CD version. In the wake of my ‘vapor trail’ I realized this is the ninth live album put out by the band. Did we need yet another one? I think I speak for all Rush fans when I say that I couldn’t ‘resist.’

As always, Rush decided to ‘animate’ their performance by trying something new. They ‘rolled the bones’ and decided ‘circumstances’ were right to include some ‘different strings’ on the album. While this may seem like ‘heresy’ to some fans, ‘entre nous’, it was a hit! The Clockwork Angels String Ensemble had one ‘superconductor’. They responded to the ‘limelight’ through great ‘chemistry’ with the rest of the band. If the group aspired to make classics such as “Dreamline”, “YYZ” and “Red Sector A” sound fresh as ever: ‘mission’ accomplished!

Can Alex, Geddy, and Neal still rock after all these years? Have the ‘scars’ of ‘time and motion’ ‘between the wheels’ of their tour bus taken a toll on their performances under ‘the camera eye’? ‘You bet your life’ they ‘face up’ to the challenge of putting out a quality live album worthy of their reputation. They ‘show don’t tell’ that ‘dog years’ haven’t affected them one bit.

As the album opened, they ‘cut to the chase’. “Subdivisions” lead into “Big Money”. The band then varied it up with numerous tracks out of the ‘archives’. My favorite new addition to the Rush repertoire was “The Body Electric”. The last several tours Rush went into Reggae mode on “Working Man”. On this live recording they kicked the Funk into overdrive with this cut from Grace Under Pressure. I felt ‘tears’ welling in my eyes as the boys sounded like Chic on steroids with the way they rocked out on this track.

The recording also included most of the tracks from the Clockwork Angels CD. What a variety! There was the “Bastille Dayesque” “Headlong Flight”, the softer “The Wreckers” and the orchestral “The Garden”. I felt let down that the band chose to leave off “BU2B” and “BU2B2” from the studio recording. I thought they were among the strongest tracks on Clockwork Angels, so I’m not sure why they chose to leave in ‘limbo’ for the live recording. I’m hoping there’s a ‘ghost of a chance’ they play them in concert at some point.

I don’t mean to sound like I’m going on a ‘witch hunt’, but I did have a slight issue with the song selection. It was a ‘sweet miracle’ the way they balanced the old with the newer songs. They played 5 of 8 tracks off of 1985’s Power Windows. That wasn’t one of the better CDs in the Rush catalog. I thought I was ‘losing it’ while sitting through all these synthesizer driven cuts. Doing so was ‘one little victory’ for my patience.

Listening to The Clockwork Angels Tour made me wish ‘time could stand still’ or ‘freeze’, but I did manage to ‘stick it out’ and listen to the whole recording at one sitting. The CD proved that Rush are more than merely players. They put out yet another strong effort with enough variety to appeal to both older and newer fans. They deserve ‘a show of hands’ for this effort. It’s an ‘open secret’ that we can’t ‘turn the page’ on Rush just yet. And ‘that’s how it is.’