Neil Simon really made his mark as a great American playwright with Brighton Beach Memoirs, now playing at Prince George’s Little Theatre performing now at the Bowie Playhouse. Magnificently directed by Ken Kienas, the incredibly talented cast presents an outstanding portrayal of Simon’s semi-autobiographical story of lower-middle class Jewish family life at the end of the Great Depression in pre-war Brooklyn, New York. It’s a story of great warmth and great jokes that transcends class and culture and delightfully entertains with poignant seriousness and believable hilarity.
Coming-of-age has never been easy, but pubescent fourteen-year old Eugene Morris Jerome (Casey Baum), easily captures the essence of growing up in a poor Jewish New York family with knowing confidence as he journals about life and times in the Jerome household circa 1937. Baum, the central character and narrator, is a tremendous talent who is surely destined to be dancing with the stars someday on Broadway. He holds center stage for much of this production with an easy confidence that’s easy to like. Casey is an actor who seems completely comfortable in his own young skin and he plays the role of Eugene with a lightheartedness that belies the depth of the character. He has an adorable quality about him as a young boy who teeters between being a kid and being an adult. Brighton Beach Memoirs is a great show for child actors and the three adolescent roles in this play are characterized and performed amazingly well.
Eugene opens the first act playing ball outside the family home, much to the annoyance of his high-strung mother and widowed Aunt Blanche who are inside preparing dinner. Turning to the audience, Eugene tells the audience that he either wants to be a baseball player or a writer as he journals about the eccentricities of his family. The entire story takes place within the Jerome household. It is a sensitive memoir that unfolds with good jokes, laughs and sighs at the faults and foibles of Jewish family life as it subtly comments on the universal significance of family in times of trials and life transitions.
The perfect stereotype of the ‘Jewish Mother,’ Nora Zanger plays Kate with precision as the family matriarch who needles Eugene incessantly to go to the store, among other things and expresses her strong opinions on just about everything, as she provides the glue that holds the family together. Zanger has just the right amount of nervousness about her children’s problems as well as her widowed sister, Blanche (Jill Goodrich), whose husband died of the “Big C” six years earlier and has come to live with the Jeromes along with her two adolescent daughters, Laurie (Annalie Ellis), 13 a bright, mischievous manipulator, and Nora (Sophia Speciale) a beautiful, ambitious 16 year-old. Blanche is an indecisive, dependent woman trying to find herself in an era when women depended upon men for financial sustenance. A young widow, Blanche leans on Jack Jerome (Steve Feder) to financially support them and to provide fatherly guidance for her two girls. Jill Goodrich gives a standout performance as Blanche as her character struggles to find her place in the world without the support of a man.
The patriarch of the family, Jack Jerome (Steve Feder), is a responsible yet weary head of household and father figure to Blanche’s daughters. He struggles to take care of everyone’s needs by working in New York’s garment district and holding down a second job to make ends meet when he suffers a heart attack from overwork. Jack provides wise counsel to Nora when she wants to drop out of high school to join a Broadway chorus and also holds to pragmatic principle when his oldest boy, Stanley (Mike Culhane), is on the verge of being fired from the factory job that the family depends upon. Steve Feder is masterful as the dutiful but worn Jack Jerome. Mike Culhane gives a consistently strong performance as Stanley, the admired older brother who feeds Eugene’s pubescent curiosity and sexual fantasies with tales of prostitutes and poker games. Eugene is enamored with his beautiful first cousin, Nora, and is ecstatic when Stanley gives him a picture postcard of a naked woman so he can finally see what the “golden gate” really looks like.
The acting by every cast member can only be described as “very well done.” They all contribute to a quality of believability that is a consistent hallmark of this enjoyable production. The New York Jewish accent of the characters is fun to listen to and the entire cast mastered it like Coney Island.
The close-knit family relationships in the Jerome household are visually metaphoric in the wonderfully cozy set design and set decoration by Cindy Bentley and Roy Peterson. Looking into the bones of the house, the set lays out the living and dining rooms on the first floor, a staircase to the second floor and the bedrooms of Stanley and Eugene and Laurie and Nora. A third door leads to Kate and Jack’s bedroom. The set allows for easy movement of the characters between scenes. Garrett Hyde’s lighting design supports and highlights the intimate conversations between the characters to dramatic effect. Malca Gibson’s costumes brings you back to the late 1930s with bobby sox and bucks, and plaid pleated school girls skirts reminiscent of the times.
Brighton Beach Memoirs deals with heavy themes like death and cancer, the financial struggles of the working-class, a woman’s search for identity in a male-dominated world, and growing up in the ethnic neighborhoods of the urban northeast. The comedic genius of Neil Simon sensitively combines seriousness with a good laugh at life’s problems and challenges. As the father, Jack Jerome, succinctly put it, “If you didn’t have a problem, you wouldn’t be living here.”
The terrific synergy between the cast members helps to give this production real believability. You’ll leave the theater believing that you had just been privy to the inner workings of family life at its best when confronted with the worst, and exit with a delighted grin on your face.
Prince George’s Little Theatre’s Brighton Beach Memoirs is a superbly directed and acted production that gives a triumphant hurrah to the importance of family.
Running Time: About 2 hours and 15 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.
Brighton Beach Memoirs plays from August 29-September 13, 2014 at Prince George’s Little Theatre (PGLT) performing at Bowie Playhouse – 16500 White Marsh Park Drive, in Bowie, MD. For tickets, call (301) 937-7458 and press 1, or purchase them online.
Meet the Director and Cast of PGLT’s ‘Brighton Beach Memoirs’: Part 1: Director Ken Kienas.
Meet the Director and Cast of PGLT’s ‘Brighton Beach Memoirs’: Part 2: Annalie Ellis (Laurie).
Meet the Director and Cast of PGLT’s ‘Brighton Beach Memoirs’: Part 3: Sophie Speciale (Nora)