NEIL SIMON IS STILL RELEVANT AT DESERT THEATREWORKS WITH BRIGHTON BEACH MEMOIRS AT IPAC

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By Jack Lyons Theatre and Film Critic. Member of American Theatre Critics Association

One of the enduring joys of seeing Neil Simon plays even 40 years after being written, is they’re still relevant when it comes to observing the foibles and folly of humans as viewed through the lens of America’s late comic genius playwright.

Simon was a big family oriented playwright.  He wrote mostly about what he knew best – working class American immigrant families, which back then in the 1930’s, most families had immigrant roots and stories.  Simon’s plays were always up-beat. Never depressing. And he infused all his work with comedy.  If people laughed with his characters, not at them, then he felt there was hope that things would get better for everyone.  And America of the 1930’s, deep in the Great Depression, needed all the comedy help it could find.

“Brighton Beach Memoirs” now on the stage of Desert Theatreworks, located in the Indio Performing Arts Center (IPAC) in Indio, CA is producing the first play in Simon’s “Eugene Trilogies”. “Memoirs” was written in 1983, followed by “Biloxi Blues” in 1985, and the last of the “Eugene Trilogies” was written in 1986. This poignant comedy is lovingly and sensitively directed Rebecca Havely.

This semi-autobiographical comedy explores life in the Jack and Kate Jerome household along with their 19-year-old son Stanley (Lee Padick) and 14-year-old Eugene (Angus Feath), a dreamer and a budding writer who plays Eugene, as well as the narrator who keep’s a diary.  Eugene’s entries help the audience keep up to date with his keen observations and comical comments concerning the jam-packed Jerome household in Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach section. Eugene has just experienced puberty and is now eager for larger adventures.

Everything revolves around family.  Beginning with his ailing, strict, father Jack (Stephen Blackwell), his morose older brother Stanley (Lee Padick) and his relationship with his two teenage female cousins: older Nora (Bella Oden), and asthma suffering, young Laurie (Cameron Trubee), and their widowed mother Blanche wonderfully and sensitively played by Leanna Rodgers.  It may be Eugene’s story but as they say it takes a close-knit family village to grow up back in the 1930’s as well as it takes today.

The play is a veritable Neil Simon gold mine of witty dialogue and poignant stage moments. It boasts a nicely nuanced and grounded performance by Ms. Ryan, as the nurturing earth mother Kate Jerome. Kate is the glue that holds the Jerome family together during the trying economic and social times of pre-World War II America.

As was common in the days of the Great Depression, families who had a home or a spare room took in relatives and extended family members. Growing up in a small or cramped house, however, left precious little space for privacy for sexually awakening 14-year-old Eugene.

“Brighton Beach Memoirs” is an American story that has been replicated all over the country. It’s just the family names and their ethnicity that has changed.  Everyone has contributed to what the country has become and what it stands for today – a beacon for freedom and democracy for all.  Remember, we have been a nation of immigrants since 1607 when the first English settlers set foot in the Virginia colony of Jamestown.  Simon’s play is layered with themes and memes that are still relevant a half century later.  He never goes out of style.  We need his comic genius touch more now than ever.

Technical credits for the production’s creative team led by director Havely include: set designer Lance Phillip-Martinez, lighting designer Phil Murphy, Costume and Props designer Michelle Mendoza, lighting operator Maddox Martinez, Follow Spot operator Kaylyn Bernal, sound designer Miguel Arballo, , sound operator Laura Martinez, Hair and Makeup design by Art Healey and the two story set Builder is Miguel Gomez.  Tresa Oden stage manages the production.

The comedy production performs on the Desert Theatreworks stage in the Indio Performing Arts Center (IPAC), Indio, CA and runs through January 27, 2019.  For tickets and reservations call the box office at 760-980-1455. 

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