Theater Review: ‘Brighton’ shines at Pennsylvania Playhouse
I was reminded of just how superb Neil Simon is as a playwright when I attended Pennsylvania Playhouse’s impressive staging of “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” a semi-autobiographical comedy about a Jewish teenager growing up in the turmoil of a Great Depression-era Polish-American family.
“Brighton Beach Memoirs,” through April 22 at the Playhouse, is full of hilarious one-liners, as well as Simon’s unfailing insights into the human condition.
Director Rody Gilkeson has created a stylish production visually, technically and dramatically. He has done a perfect job of casting each of the characters, while also assembling a marvelously well-balanced ensemble in terms of acting ability. At the April 7 performance, seen for this review, there wasn’t one weak link in the portrayals.
The sometimes overly-dramatic, would-be writer Eugene is played by Jack Miller, who juggles the nuances of the conflicted teenager with ease. Eugene has most of the comic lines, which he speaks in varying tones of sarcasm, brashness or petulance. Always feeling put upon, Eugene quips, “Guess who is going to get blamed for the war in Europe?” His seemingly cockeyed, but frequently astute observations, are delivered with just the right timing and demeanor. “My father is a hard worker. He was born at the age of 42.”
Kelly Herbert James is Kate, Eugene’s loving, but stern mother. At times, she seems overwhelmed with the responsibility of not only taking care of her husband and children, but also her widowed younger sister and niece who live with the family. She seems at times to move with the weight of the world on her shoulders, but when need arises, she finds the strength to comfort her husband. James deftly underplays her character’s fatigue, frustration and anger by letting her face and posture help tell the story.
The cast includes Rachel Williams (Aunt Blanche), Adriana Sfar (Nora, Blanche’s daughter), Kristin Henrikson Shea (Stanley, Eugene’s older brother), Nick Englesson (Jack, Eugene’s father) and Alexa McFillin (Laura, Eugene’s younger sister).
“Memoirs” isn’t all about the laughs. It has its poignant moments, as in scenes between the father and Stanley; Stanley and Eugene up in the bedroom, and Nora and her mother.
Richard Gunkle’s striking set facilitates actors’ movements and eliminates the need for cumbersome scene changes. The ingenious use of levels provides two loft-style bedrooms, a living room, attached dining room, off-stage kitchen entrance and a staircase. Gunkle cleverly created an outdoor exit leading to a faux concrete walkway, and a grassy space at the side of the house, where many of the scenes take place. The areas are well lit by designer Brett Oliveira, whose lighting cues were spot on.
Costumes are coordinated by Elizabeth Marsh-Gilkeson, who took pains to provide the look of 1930s authenticity with Laura’s saddle shoes, and Eugene’s golf knickers, tall socks and argyle sweater.
Tickets: Pennsylvania Playhouse Box Office, 390 Illick’s Mill Road, Bethlehem; paplayhouse.org; 610-865-1192