I had a Great Aunt whose fourth floor walk-up apartment was very much on display when I entered the performance space at Har Shalom. I wondered if set designers Maggie Moddig and Steven Leshin had relatives who were neighbors of hers. The worn, comfortable furniture, dark paneling, and simplistic – if not stoic – knickknacks carefully displayed all seemed quite familiar. Big kudos to properties and set dressing expert Sonya Okin for filling the space with memories.
The soundtrack of mid-war big bands and jazz offered by Nick Sampson might be the perfect accompaniment to the evening’s events.
Neil Simon’s Lost in Yonkers begins with early teenage brothers Jay and Arty (Cole Sitilides and Elyon Topolosky) perfectly demonstrating their discomfort, not only from the overwhelming heat and lingering aromas of the aging dwelling, but also from the tremendous stress and uncertainty they felt wearing their best clothes for the visit to Grandma’s home. This is clearly not a favorite childhood visitation to a dear relative. The pair is nervous and tentative. Not wanting to touch anything for fear of punishment.
They seem to have been forced to visit by their father, Eddie (Michael Reilly) who bursts in to the space from a hidden side room like a scared rabbit. He’s twitchy and nervous and admonishes the boys not to break anything or move the couch doilies. He warns them that their grandmother is coming out. She’ll want to see the boys on their best behavior.
The pair watches desperately out the lone window, seeking relief from the heat, perhaps longing to escape but also searching for another relative – Aunt Bella (Marnie Kanarek). Bella tends to walk right by. She’s a little different than most – but loveable, like a kitten or a puppy. She may be their only salvation.
Everyone is so completely on edge by the time Grandma Kurnitz (Leah Mazade) enters the living room that I half expected a rumble of thunder and a lightning clap! The feared family matriarch prowls from her hidden bedroom – leering, limping, and lurching on her cane. Her old-world survivor’s accent hardens every phrase she utters. She appears so wizened, worn down and miserable that the rest of the family seems to age in place. The pathos is palpable and without Mr Simon’s witty dialogue, there’s a sense that half the audience might burst into nervous tears.
Eddie is about to drop one of those emotional, life-altering bombs on his family that nobody expects. Survival will require every speck of togetherness and support that only a family can provide. Eventually, Uncle Louie (Christopher Tully) oozes into the atmosphere late one evening in keeping with his mysterious but suspected dark vocation. It is worth noting here that the lighting queues of designer Peter Caress are timed to perfection whenever the onstage action happens at night. Uncle Louie a fast-talking, street hardened individual who explains to the boys he is the only one of his siblings who doesn’t fear his mom – Grandma Kurnitz. Anxiety is heightened (if that is even possible) by Aunt Gert (Cristen Stephansky) whose profound speech impediment is heightened by proximity with her mom. Gert manages to exist on life’s periphery but is secure in her life in spite of her challenges.
The family rallies together, holding one another up just enough to make it through. One cannot help feel part of this story is their own. The cast deserves every moment of the standing ovation following the final bows. Director David Dieudonne has worked a little magic here with a very talented group of community players and their costumes and quaffs were lovingly created by Laurie Freed.
Time passes, people change and grow. With good fortune, we all may confront life’s challenges with the strength and fortitude on display at Har Shalom.
Running Time: 95 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission.
Lost In Yonkers plays through November 5, 2017 at Peace Mountain Theatre Company performing at Congregation Har Shalom – 11510 Falls Road, in Potomac, MD. For tickets, call (301) 987-2478, or purchase them online.