BRIGHTON BEACH MEMOIRSBy Neil Simon
Director by Megan Haratine
Stage Manager – Heather Moore
Set Designer – Kevin Brown
Lighting Designer – Bryan Stevenson
Sound Designer – Bill Eickenloff
Scenic Artist – Angie Glover
Properties Designer – Robin Dotson
Costume Designer – Sharon Kaye Miller
Assistant Stage Manager – Kiera Gabitt
Eugene — Eric Berg
Kate — Jennifer Engler
Jack — Seth Johnston
Stanley — Seth Nelson
Blanche — Melanie Mason
Nora — Olivia Cinquepalmi
Laurie — Brooklyn Ramey-Halkyard
Understudy — Michael McCrary
Reviewed Performance: 8/9/2019
Reviewed by Charlie Bowles, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Neil Simon writes about American life using mundane life stories, filled with pathos and comic tragedy. Each could be plucked from a typical family in the throes of everyday life. In the case of Brighton Beach Memoirs, that family is his.
Eugene Jerome is a typical Brooklyn Jewish teen coming of age in the turbulent 1930's. There's a depression with people struggling to eat and a war brewing in Europe. But in Brooklyn, a young boy is just trying to figure out his budding feelings about girls and choices he has to make in a family reeling from too many mouths to feed.
Brighton Beach Memoirs is the final production of Theatre Arlington's season. Directed by Megan Haratine, this story was given its full due as any Neil Simon comedy should, with a look into the lives and trappings of these common people we can all identify with. Her choices in design and direction allowed us to connect directly to these characters. And, notwithstanding the tragic circumstances and 40-year old humor, it's still hilarious!
In 1930's Brighton Beach, the house is life. A microcosm of the world outside, but safer. Kevin Brown created this space with a big living and dining room below and two bedrooms above, all visible, doll house style. It seemed solid. This set was filled with furniture and household items that belied the signs of comfortable, though modest, living. Scenic Artist, Angie Glover, and Properties Designer, Robin Dotson, filled the space with the accoutrements of houses people occupy. It seemed like we dropped into a place families really live.
Bryan Stevenson's lighting not only lit this house in various ways, but subtle colors brought the set to life. Sometimes lights went dark in rooms with characters occupying themselves off-stage, but other times the lights were on in all rooms. This allowed the focus to change the active space for a scene, while keeping all actors visible and allowed for quick scene changes. Backing music by Bill Eickenloff began pre-show with songs of the Dorsey band that set the era of the play. Both lights and sound were understated to allow the story to unfold comfortably while making it easy to follow. Sharon Kaye Miller's costume designs put actors into clothing that looked like 1930's New York, lower-class but not homeless. They may have struggled to make $5 last the week, but also had little elegances that made life more palatable.
Eugene Morris Jerome is an almost-15 teen who revels in 1930's baseball and his diary. His writing covers the daily lives of his family and so he doubles as the narrator for this memory play. For him the audience is real, another character to talk to. His narrations are comments on everything, especially the things he gets blamed for. This calls for innocence, energy and quick wit, all of which described Eric Berg in this role. His shin-high short pants and gangly garb make him look younger, but Berg's skills enabled him to occupy Eugene physically to pull off the 15-year old psyche. Berg is an adult! He jumped seamlessly between his side comments and his place in the story. And his comic timing let his acerbic, exasperated comments land. It was his comments that created most of the night's laughter.
The big deal in Eugene's life is girls, especially his cousin, Nora. The budding feelings he's had are new and frightening. But Jerome has a big brother to learn from and those conversations are both shocking and more side-splitting. In different hands these conversations could be uncomfortable, almost adult, but in Neil Simon's text and the work of Berg and Seth Nelson, as Stanley, it's childish innocence.
Nelson's Stanley, as the big brother, mixed a worldly man of the street with the enormity of being pivotal in helping the family eat and the pressure this puts on a man, only 18 himself. Nelson showed Stanley's deep love for a little brother in ways only brothers may recognize. But Stanley is dealing with his own crisis. Nelson focused totally on Stanley's personal problem that threatens the survival of the family. He wasn't just a supporting character, but rather a complex character who accentuated Eugene's innocence while creating a major sub-story in the plot.
Mom and dad were played by Jennifer Engler (Kate) and Seth Johnston (Jack). Kate and Jack are like Tevye and Golde in Fiddler, strong and stable while scraping together a meager life for their family. Engler infused her main-stay character with all the judgements of a Polish Jewish mother against her Irish neighbor while trying to feed her family and keep everyone on the narrow path. She could have turned this into a shrew being critical and demanding of everyone, but instead she came across as a loving mother desperately doing the best she can.
Jack is the bread-winner, working multiple jobs to feed all the mouths he's inherited. It's hard on him and his health is suspect. Seth Johnston could have played him as descending into despair to make him morose. He has a lot of problems. But instead Seth's character is a gentle, father-knows-best man of quiet calmness. At one point Jack has to counsel his niece through her teenage crisis, and Seth reminded me of the dad that used to give me advice while staying above the judgement I'm sure he had. I loved watching these two actor play off each other. The quiet humor that can be seen in a poor, but strong, family's struggles is best seen in how the mom and dad interact and Engler and Johnston created some magical moments together.
Blanche is Kate's sister who lives, along with her two daughters, with the Jerome family after her husband died. Melanie Mason deftly made this woman a character who still quietly grieves but wants to move on, while covering up her shame about having to live off her sister. There was a quiet guilt in her voice as Mason did things to help the family. Blanche has a ray of hope in a neighbor, and Mason allowed this bit of sunshine into her voice and actions, making Blanche like a giddy teenager, adult-style. But heartbreaks keep her reeling as she jumps from having to make unpopular choices about her daughter while also learning how deep conflict with her sister goes. Mason walked a tightrope between high and low moments with great care, so as to keep Blanche's tragic circumstances just above tragedy.
Moments of great stress in a family have a way of bringing out long-held, unspoken resentments, that often reach back to childhood. There's lots of conflict between the characters in this story, but Blanche and Kate reached into our hearts and reminded us of the gut-wrenching fights siblings can have. As the text of this conflict spiraled downward, Mason and Engler let it slowly simmer until the inevitable explosion opened the wounds. This seemed to be a key message in this story. Kate's words apply to us all, "The only thing people like us have is our dignity!" Their fight is about clinging too dignity.
Nora, played by Olivia Cinquepalmi, and Laurie, played by Brooklyn Ramey-Halkyard, are sisters as well. The daughters of Blanche have their own needs and don't grasp their mother's shame. Nora is 16 and has a crisis about her own independence that overshadows everything in the family. But Cinquepalmi played the jealousies about Nora's sister's status as the favorite, mirroring Blanche and Kate's childhood. Laurie has an ailment that creates special-case handling, while Nora is ignored. That's how many family resentments begin. As the target of Eugene's attention, Nora mostly ignores him. Laurie, however, is closer to Eugene's intellect, a reader and thinker, though she's not afraid to milk her special advantage. Ramey-Halkyard has fewer lines but lots of interrupted lines and looks and glances that show Laurie's underlying feelings. But the young actor stood her own against a cast of professionals and created a character we enjoyed watching.
As is true of most every story, Brighton Beach Memoirs is about love. Yes, the future of Neil Simon is the basis for the narration, as it is in the rest of Simon's Eugene Trilogy. But this story questions the price of love, especially in difficult times, when crises are rampant and stress is high? Sisters, brothers, husbands and wives, the relationships in our lives are the only thing that endures and makes life worthwhile. The resolutions of long-held, unspoken conflicts bring families together and this play at its core is about families.
Brighton Beach Memoirs also reminds us that humor is timeless. This was much funnier than expected from a play written in 1980's about a time in the 30's. And it kept the audience engaged and entertained throughout the long acts. Make this a sure-fire show to see.
305 W. Main St.
Arlington, TX 76010
Plays through August 31st
Thursday at 7:30 pm; Friday & Saturday at 8:00 pm; Sunday at 2:00 pm.
Tickets: $22 - $24
For information and tickets, visit www.theatrearlington.org or call (817) 275-7661.
*Appropriate for ages 13 and up*