Sofia DiCostanzo

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 She’d become withdrawn and emotionally lost following the tragedy.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

 

To Kill a Mockingbird at the Ritz Theatre Company in Haddon Township, NJ

Harper Lee crafted a unique American take on the traditional bildungsroman. The author’s powerful exploration of a young girl’s maturation through her harsh exposure to the world around her made for the timeless novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. Fortunately, for theatre fans, Christopher Sergel adapted this Pulitzer Prize winning classic for the stage. Under the direction of Matthew Weil, The Ritz Theatre Company in Haddon Township, NJ presented an extraordinary interpretation when I attended the March 3rd performance.

Due to the immense success of both the book and the film, most in the general public are already familiar with the story. This presents a challenge for theatrical companies. How does one make something so well-known still interesting and engaging to audiences? The answer: through phenomenal performances. To Kill a Mockingbird included a host of them.

Maude Atkinson (played by Nicky O’Neal) expressed the following thoughts on Atticus Finch: “The highest honor the town can give a man: the ability to do good.” The actor who played him (Cory Laslocky) didn’t “do good.” He did a phenomenal job in his performance. Mr. Laslocky did extraordinary work balancing the character’s complexities; most notably when he cross examined Mayella Ewell (played by Kaitlin Healy). He displayed a reserved easy going manner with his deliberate questioning. Through his words he became a man who could be firm and tough. He managed this difficult equilibrium throughout the entire show; his convincing portrayal of the character’s passionate closing argument serving as the lone exception.

The moment that affected me the most in Mockingbird occurred during Mr. Laslocky’s exchange with his witness Tom Robinson (played by Mikal Odom). Mr. Odom’s stage presence and delivery during this scene were without peer. I’ve never experienced a performer capturing a character’s emotional state so well. With a Southern drawl, shaky voice and teary eyes he explained the events leading to his false accusation. He brought out the character’s fear and anxiety in a way that I could feel.  If his awesome performance didn’t move you: you’re not human.

Shawn O’Brien delivered a memorable interpretation of the villain, Bob Ewell. This performer really got into character. His choice of voice, exaggerated mannerisms and yelling captured the essence of a bitter, alcoholic racist. Several times in the courtroom scenes his shouting and swigging of a bottle convinced me he became unhinged. During a later scene his evil laughing while wheedling a piece of wood even gave me a chill.

The show’s most unforgettable moment occurred during the confrontation scene. While Atticus stood guard outside the jail housing Tom Robinson an angry mob arrived. They’d planned on hanging the accused. Showing shades of Atticus, his daughter, Scout (played by Sofia DiCostanzo) did an outstanding job in her dialog with Walter Cunningham (played by Mike Lovell). Ms. DiCostanzo delivered her lines as a naïve child engaging Mr. Lovell’s (probably intoxicated) character in conversation. She recognized him as one of her classmate’s father. After asking him to say “hello” to his son for her, he bowed his head as if in shame. He calmly instructed the mob to disburse and “go home.” While it had a lot of competition for this title, these performers made the scene the play’s most powerful.

The playwright chose to utilize a technique about which I experienced mixed feelings. In following the book, the playwright had the character of Jean Louise Finch (the Scout character as an adult) narrate throughout the show. The performer who played this role, Nellie Brown, did outstanding work as a story teller. Her expressions and delivery were very expressive as she recounted the events that transpired both on and off the stage. In addition Ms. Brown spent most of the show in view of the audience. I liked how she smiled nostalgically as the action played out. I could envision her as a person reliving all these events in her mind. She possesses a pleasant voice. Ms. Brown would be a good choice to narrate an audio version of the book. Someone that gifted in the performing arts deserves a better role to exhibit her talent.

In my view, the role of Jean Louise Finch brought to mind the character of Basil Exposition from the Austin Powers films. A narrator’s role in a comedy is much more effective. The method of having a character do so in a live dramatic play stops the action too much for my taste. In a medium that’s very dialog heavy, I find it adds too much ‘telling’ to the script. In this case Ms. Brown’s exceptional story telling ability made the narrator’s role enjoyable. Besides, an actor’s role is to interpret the script as written: not to correct bad writing.

Sensitive theatre fans should be aware that the show contained usage of racial epithets. The language complimented the theme of the story and fit the less-enlightened historical time period. For these reasons I didn’t find it offensive.

The show featured a very unusual intermission. During the trial scene Judge Taylor (played by Andrew Kushner) came out from behind the bench and walked to the front of the stage. He announced there’d be a 10 minute “recess.” As he spoke the house lights came on. The players remained on the stage during the break. They continued playing the parts of courtroom observers waiting for the hearing to resume. From their gestures and facial expressions it looked like Lori A. Howard and Mike Lovell had a pretty interesting conversation going on. I would’ve liked to have heard it.

It made me very happy to see Paul Sollimo (who played Nathan and “Boo” Radley) back on stage again. When they find the person who started this unfounded rumor about his retirement, they should do to him what the drunken mob wanted to do to Tom Robinson. (Even theatre critics are guilty of ‘bad writing’ once in a while.)

So many performers did exceptional jobs in this show that it’s unfair to leave anyone out. I’d like to credit Kyle Smart, Carter Weiss, Rhonda V. Fidelia, Kaitlin Healy, Sean O’Shea, Jay Burton, Andrew Kushner, Doug Supleee, Ann Moser Trenka, Nicky O’Neal, Lori A. Howard and Natasha Truitt for their contributions, as well. The show wouldn’t have been as engaging without them.

The play reflected the life of one of it’s characters. Kind of like Boo Radley, To Kill a Mockingbird comes out of seclusion, makes a huge impact and then returns to exile for a while. Fans of great literature, theatre and acting would be well served to see it performed at The Ritz Theatre while they can. The show runs through March 19th.