Thursday, November 6, 2014

UIS students performing Neil Simon's 'Brighton Beach Memoirs'

The first of Neil Simon’s semi-autobiographical plays, “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” opens the University of Illinois Springfield theater season Friday.

While Simon is best known for comedies such as “The Odd Couple,” director Missy Thibodeaux-Thompson noted that “Brighton Beach,” which debuted on Broadway in 1983, marked one of the first times that critics recognized Simon’s ability to blend comedy and drama in a single work.

“This play has been on my list (of plays to direct) for years,” said Thibodeaux-Thompson, an associate professor of theater at UIS. “Simon’s work can be deceptive — it’s not simple but very, very challenging.”

“Brighton Beach Memoirs” takes place in 1937, with 15-year-old Eugene Jerome (Liam Schaver) — a shy Jewish youth preoccupied with baseball, writing and girls — living with his extended family in the Brighton Beach neighborhood of Brooklyn.

The play depicts the antagonism and affection between Eugene, his parents Jack and Kate (Wesley Skym and Liza Torrence), his brother Stanley (Christopher Romero), his aunt Blanche (Diamond Dixon), and his cousins Laurie and Nora (Emily Hartney and Courtney Kincaid), who all live under the same roof.

It is the first in Simon’s “Eugene trilogy” of plays loosely depicting his teenage years, his experiences as an Army recruit in World War II (“Biloxi Blues”) and his early career as a television comedy writer (“Broadway Bound”).

“He’s intelligent, but sort of naive at the same time,” Schaver said of Eugene. “His ambitions are to be either a sportswriter or a pitcher for the New York Yankees. He’s good hearted, but a little self-centered.”

Eugene’s mother, Kate, “is a busybody who worries about everything, takes on everyone else’s problems as her own, and needs to be in control,” Torrence said. In contrast, Blanche is quiet and reserved, and “has a hard time finding her voice,” said Dixon, because she is ashamed to be dependent upon her sister and her brother-in-law.

The play requires 1930s-era costumes and props and must be staged in a manner that allows the audience to see simultaneous actions in more than one room in the Jerome household. “All of these moving parts have been part of the challenge,” Thibodeaux-Thompson said. She and set designer Dathan Powell, UIS assistant professor of theater, began planning the set design over the summer, eventually creating a multi-level set combined with a non-standard seating arrangement for the audience.

“I’ve always loved this play,” which portrays the struggles of a working-class family in the years between the Depression and World War II, Thibodeaux-Thompson said. “I love the relationships it depicts, and that the characters are not one-dimensional. We see these people as flawed human beings, not caricatures.”

The article appeared in The State Journal-Register on November 5, 2014.

Read the article online.