Quote of the Day: Everyone thinks they can write a play; you just write down what happened to you. But the art of it is drawing from all the moments of your life. Neil Simon
I enjoy attending local community theater productions. I often volunteer to usher. I like to be part of it in some way. It’s been a while since I’ve been on stage, and I envy the actors who get to tell that story together, the bond they form, the entertainment they provide. Plus, the drive home takes only 10 minutes, versus the two hour drive I often take to review productions in the Twin Cities. Although, I use that time to process the shows, and it’s time with friends or family who accompany me.
On stage at Brainerd Community Theatre at Central Lakes College (BCT at CLC) is Neil Simon’s semi-autobiographical play Brighton Beach Memoirs. It is by far my favorite of his work. He writes great comedy, sure, and most people know and love The Odd Couple, but I find most of his plays strong on guy parts, and the women rather flat. Not so in Brighton Beach. These are real women up there, telling their story, the struggles, the love, and their bond with their families. The story is told from the POV of Eugene, a 15-year-old boy who is going through puberty. He’s terribly preoccupied with women. His older brother Stanley offers some advice, but he’s going through his own crisis, that of an 18-year-old young man finding his way in the world. The setting is September 1937 in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, New York. The world is on the brink of another major war. Eugene’s family are Polish Jews who immigrated, earlier, and are worried about family members still living in Poland, and what is happening to Jews in Europe. Poverty, war, discrimination, and survival all underscore this family story filled with humor and poignant moments. Everybody wants/needs something, and some of it is resolved in the end. But, like real life, other aspects are a constant struggle.
One of the new directors at CLC is Cory Johnson. She comes to us with a wealth of experience in theater. Brighton Beach is the first show she is directing for BCT. She brings out all the humanness of this play, the family dynamics, and the best performances by our talented local actors. She cast Oliva Armstrong as Eugene. If I hadn’t known that she was an 18-year-old female college student playing a 15-year-old boy, I never would have guessed it. She embodied this part with every subtle movement, a hoarse adolescent voice, and expressions that sold every emotion. I would go back and watch it again for her portrayal as Eugene. Brilliant.
The entire cast is outstanding. We have Jana Johnson playing Kate, Eugene’s mother. She has command of her family and running the house. She has to be frugal and savvy, as well as strong for everyone. Jana delivers that character with confidence. Kate’s sister Blanche, played by Erin Caswell, is living with Eugene’s family with her two daughters after the death of her husband. It was very hard for women to make a livable wage in 1937, and she is struggling. Eugene is infatuated with his cousin Nora (Lydia Jendro) and talks incessantly about how she looks. Nora is only 16, but wants to pursue a career in theater. Lydia gives Nora just the right amount of sassy, and pouty, teenager, mixed with tender moments with her mom. Nora’s younger sister Laurie (Isabel Pence) has a heart condition and is pampered by everyone, except Eugene. He sees through it and wonders why she can’t be given more chores. Isabel plays her sweet and smart, and gives her a bit of attitude, as well.
Eugene has a few heart to heart scenes with his big brother Stanley (Joey Haasken). They have typical boy talk moments, and a few where Stanley feels the age gap and need for separation. He’s struggling with his job, his integrity, and whether or not to enlist as the war builds in Europe and threatens life at home. They all turn to Jack (Kevin Yeager) who has to provide for not only his own wife and sons, but also his sister-in-law and her daughters. It’s the depression, money is tight, jobs are scarce, and everyone needs something. Kevin is always terrific in the dad roles. You can see how the burden weighs on Jack as he offers advice and tries to provide for all their needs.
Local friends, if you get a chance, go see Brighton Beach Memoirs at CLC. It’s a wonderful production filled with humor and heart, expertly directed with some of our finest local actors. Gorgeous set design by Tim Leagjeld, and builders Jacob Becker and Matt Hill. Wonderful period costumes by Cory Johnson and Rachael Kline. Tech/video by Curtis Jendro. Lighting design by Kristofer Eitrheim. Playing next week Nov. 1-3 only, at 7:00 on the Chalberg stage. Adult themes and language. Recommended for ages 12 and up.
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Journaling Prompt: Who did you turn to for advice when you were growing up?
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