Thursday, March 30, 2017

WOBT: "Brighton Beach Memoirs"

Director Blair Dyson's production of Brighton Beach Memoirs at Prattville's Way Off Broadway Theatre has one of that theatre's strongest acting ensembles gracing the stage in Neil Simon's 1983 semi-autobiographical coming-of-age comedy. Set in the title's Brooklyn neighborhood in 1937, it tracks a Jewish family's lives as World War II is about to erupt in Europe where many of their family and friends still live.

The War is occasionally referenced in the two acts, reminding us that even during the Depression, the hard times in America pale in comparison to the horrors of the holocaust to come.

But war is the last thing in the mind of Simon's alter-ego, the precocious 15-year-old Eugene Jerome [Sam Elsky] who is more interested in sports and a fixation on women's breasts. -- Eugene is also the narrator of the piece who regularly comments on his frustrations with other family members: his mother Kate's [Zyna Captain] constant nagging and unremarkable cooking; his Aunt Blanche's [Melissa Strickland] fragile health; his admiration of elder brother Stanley [Christian Chapman] who "instructs" him on "the ways of the world"; his older cousin Nora's [Grace Moore] breasts and dreams of becoming a Broadway star; his younger cousin Laurie's [Tori Sigler] retreat into bookishness because of a perceived illness; and the solidity of his father Jack [Gary Essary] whose wise advice is sought on every important issue or decision.

While several characters' choices need Jack's sage advice, and with two families living under one roof due to financial straits in hard times predictably cause some friction, the resulting anger and misunderstandings [some recent and some long-held resentments] are eventually forgiven because of the bond of love and family they share.

What holds this production together is the sincere portrayals of all the characters. The playwright's witty dialogue is delivered truthfully, demonstrating these actors' ability to humanize their sometimes outrageous pronouncements. And for all their complaints about others behaviors, the love that is rarely expressed in words is demonstrated by their actions.

They invite us into their home and their lives for a couple of hours, and we can't help but love them back.