Jack Lyons Theatre & Film Critic
Jack Lyons Theatre & Film Critic

Neil Simon is America’s most prolific and successful comedy playwright. He had over thirty hit plays produced on Broadway – three running at the same time – in his heyday. He’s retired now but his comedy genius is still, thankfully, with us.

The St. Joseph’s Players of Yucca Valley under the artistic directorship of founder Rebecca Havely is presenting Simon’s “Biloxi Blues”, his semi-autobiographical comedy of young draftees coming of age in World War II.

The comedy sharply directed by Rebecca Havely features a cast of veteran actors working alongside talented newcomers with the result being an engaging and entertaining evening of comedy and drama that resonates with audiences of all ages; especially for those military families and those active duty Marines in the hi-desert community of 29 Palms which is also known as “Marine country”.

The story centers on a clash of wills between private Arnold Epstein (Ryan Fleischman) and Sgt. Merwin J. Toomey (played by Bob Noble, who stepped into the role with one night’s notice as a result of a family emergency by actor Abe Daniels), the NCO in charge of a group of WW II draftees stationed at Biloxi, 1943.

The play is narrated by Eugene Morris Jerome (Jericho McWilliams) – the alter ego of Simon – who also plays one of the characters. There is both comedy and drama in Simon’s recalling of his early days as a young soldier; underscoring Eugene’s persistent pursuit and determination to lose his virginity while in the army. He keeps a diary which is full of his observations concerning his fellow recruits, and the many situations they get into. Sgt. Toomey on the other hand is not amused by the attitude of his green, boot-camp recruits, and is determined to shape them into soldiers.

It’s not all barracks humor. There are females in the play who portray young ladies of St. Mary’s High School at the local USO dance: Bianca Stoker, who plays Rowena, a young lady of the night who has captured the imagination of all the recruits on their first liberty pass into Biloxi, also plays a USO dance partner; Liyan Lagevardi as Daisy, Eugene’s innocent love interest; Kaylin Moffitt as a dance partner at the USO dance; K.J. Smith as a USO dance partner and Cathy Inscore as Sister Marissa, a chaperone at the Dance. Joe Turner plays Father Turner the priest who likes to nip from his flask.

Director Havely can take pride in her solid cast of recruits led by McWilliams as Eugene; all of whom have individual moments in which they shine. Nice performances are turned in by Jared Phillips as Joseph Wykowski, the bully, Kory Fleischman as a nerdy soldier; Beau Stoker as Roy Selridge, and Adam Redmon as James Hennessey. The aforementioned Ryan Fleischman as Arnold Epstein, Bob Noble as Sgt. Toomey complete a wonderful ensemble company of players.

The Set Design by director Havely is tight but her personal vision cleverly solves the traffic management issues of a lot of people occupying a very small performing space. Perhaps a couple of instrumental musical numbers during scene changes might help muffle the sound when striking set pieces. Also, tennis shoes help muffle the sounds when worn by backstage crew members.

“Biloxi Blues is an entertaining evening in the theatre and performs at St. Joseph’s of Arimathea Church in Yucca Valley through June 7th. For tickets and reservation information call 760-362- 9319.