St. Joseph Players of Yucca Valley are presenting Neil Simon’s semi-autobiographical nostalgic comedy “Brighton Beach Memoirs”. It’s one of Neil’s personal favorites even to the point of writing the lead character of Eugene Jerome based directly on his own experiences growing up as a teenager in Brooklyn, NY during the 1930’s and the Great Depression.
The beauty of plays by Simon is that one can always relate to his characters and their situations even when the script shows cracks from the aging process. One can always find and enjoy the underlying truth of his work which crosses generational, racial, and religious lines.
“Brighton Beach Memoirs”, lovingly directed by Desert Theatre League award winning director Rebecca Haveley, is a coming of age comedy set in the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn that focuses on Eugene Morris Jerome (Trevor Carpenter), a 13 year-old Jewish-American teenager who experiences puberty, sexual awakening, and a search for a sense of identity amid the chaos of growing up in a household full of relatives who are grappling with various crises of their own: unemployment, tight family budgets, and the raising of fatherless children in trying times. It is a time in America where every family member of a workable age is expected to financial contribute and help out his or her family.
It is also a time when young Eugene is trying to deal with his family including his older brother Stanley (Vincent Thomas), his parents Kate and Jack Jerome (Rebecca Haveley and Leonard Weber, respectively), Kate’s sister Blanche (Shelly Sheckler), and her two daughters, the beautiful sixteen year-old Nora (Elizabeth Schmelling), upon whom Eugene has a major crush, and Laurie (Madison Tuttle) who is close to Eugene’s age. The girls and their mother Blanche, moved in with Jack and Kate after the death of Blanche’s husband.
Rebecca Haveley, as the director has a knack of bringing out the best in her supporting character actors. Elizabeth Schmelling turns in a fine performance as Nora, Eugene’s sixteen year-old cousin. Nora on the edge of womanhood, is desperately trying spread her almost adult wings in her search for independence and an opportunity to enter the world of show business. Schmelling’s thoughtful and intelligent eye-contact steady in all scenes stands out as does Leonard Weber’s pitch-perfect New York accent of Jack Jerome, along with the understanding of his character as the family Patriarch in a house with four females. This is the 1930’s remember, it also is a time when Papa’s ruled the roost. Weber’s take on Jack Jerome is nicely drawn and very appealing.
Another nice performance is delivered by Vincent Thomas as Stanley the older brother. Despite, a slight case of the opening night jitters, Thomas settled in and his “birds and the bees” scenes with Carpenter’s Eugene was one of the comedy highlights of the evening. Carpenter appeared to have suffered a slight case those actor’s jitters in his monologues; racing through his lines a little too fast. However, he settled down later on. The Eugene Jerome role comes with a lot of pressure. After all, the young actor is playing Neil Simon as a young man. Who wouldn’t wobble a bit on opening night? Haveley, the actress, and Shelly Sheckler as Blanche, and Tuttle as Laurie perform yeoman duty in this tender, warm and funny coming of age comedy.
The set design by Haveley and Ron Stimbert is spot on for a Brooklyn apartment and is chock full of chachka’s thanks to the efforts of prop mistress Sue Kelly and her crew. Costumes by Karl Weimer has the period down cold, right down to the shoes and socks of the cast members. It’s a nice touch and is appreciated, I’m sure, by the cast. If Olivier worked from the inside out where the costumes helped him get a better feel for the character, then I think it will work for the St. Joseph actors in this production.
“Brighton Beach Memoirs” performs through November 2, 2014. Call the box office for tickets and reservations at 760-365-7133.