True confession time: I was not looking forward to viewing Neil Simon’s “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” the play that Lakewood Playhouse picked as the kickoff to its 80th Season. I had a sour disposition toward the prospect of going to see a slickly written family drama set in New York City. I feel as if I know way too much about New York for someone who has never been there. And tales of the struggles of immigrant families – our national story – can be had by the trunk full.
Despite my reservations. I showed up on opening weekend, got my popcorn and bottle of water and settled into my seat. Then the magic of the theatre took place. Neil Simon’s beautifully crafted story grabbed me almost from the very beginning. I soon found myself emotionally engaged with the Jerome family who are depicted at a crossroads in their family life.
Everything comes together in this Lakewood Playhouse production. The lighting, props, sets and brilliant acting all combine to weave that theatrical enchantment that allows for the audience to become fully engaged in the story as it unfolds in front of your senses.
We are dropped right into the living room of a financially strapped Jewish family struggling to make ends meet. Jack Jerome (W. Scott Pinkston) is the hard-working father with two jobs despite bad health. Kate (Pamela Roza), the dynamic mother of the family rules the household which consists of two sons, Stanley (Andrew Fox Burden) and Eugene (Drew Bates), Kate’s widowed sister Blanche (Brynne Garman) and her two daughters Nora (Andrea Gordon) and Laurie (Kate-Lynn Siemers).
The story is set in the late 1930s, as the storm of WWII is gathering. The Jerome family is desperate enough already, but they also haunted by thoughts of relatives trapped in Nazi occupied Poland. They hope that family members can get out, but are daunted by the prospect of having to provide for more yet family members that might show up on their door step. Actually, Jack, the family’s wise patriarch, is the only one not daunted by the prospect. “God does not give us problems that we can’t handle,” he says. That kind of faith is the key to understanding Jack’s ability to navigate the family over troubled waters.
This story is an autobiographical tale of the youth of playwright Simon. Eugene, the youngest son, is based on the playwright and functions as a personable narrator, providing inside information to the audience. Nevertheless, it is Pinkston, as Jack, and Roza, as Kate, who take center place in the story. Kate’s energy and Jack’s wisdom are what keep the family from breaking up into bitterness as they deal with moments of crisis.
Garman’s portrayal of Blanche, the widowed sister/aunt/mother who has allowed herself to become overly dependent on the Jeromes, is also precisely fleshed out. Bates, as Eugene, and Burden, as Stanley, are both brilliantly funny and engaging as the bond between brothers is depicted with nostalgic fondness by Simon.
During some of Jack’s talks with his eldest son Stanley, I felt the emotional atmosphere in the room ripen and got a little teary eyed myself. By the end of the story, I had fallen in love with this family. The story is uplifting and inspiring.
“Brighton Beach Memoirs” was written in 1982 and is the first play in an autobiographical trilogy by Simon. “Brighton Beach” was followed by “Biloxi Blues” (1984) and “Broadway Bound” (1986).
If “Brighton Beach Memoirs” is based in truth, it must be a rare truth. How many families have the good fortune to have a father figure like Jack Jerome, a man of penetrating insight and wisdom, to guide them through hard times like a wily ship captain? Was that kind of man more common in earlier generations? In our own age, adults seem prone to getting caught up in perpetual childhood and haven’t the will power for self-sacrifice or the ability of self-reflection that leads to wisdom that would make them able to guide an extended family with such unfailing skill through times of hardship.
I find the tragically flawed family depicted in Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” (shown at Lakewood Playhouse a couple of years ago) to hew closer to the norm of family life in the America of the twenty first century. Nevertheless, it is uplifting to see the example of such a figure come to life on the stage, no matter how much the vision is colored by nostalgia.
The choice to produce a Neil Simon play proved prescient on the part of John Munn, Lakewood Playhouse’s managing artistic director. Simon died 0n Aug. 26, just days before this production appeared on stage. During a long, decorated career, Simon wrote such hits as “The Odd Couple” and “Barefoot in the Park.” He garnered numerous awards and has a theatre in New York named after him.
“Brighton Beach Memoirs” runs through Sept. 30. For schedules, ticket information call (253) 588-0042 or visit www.lakewoodplayhouse.org.