Lakewood Playhouse celebrates its 80th season opener with the production of Neil Simon’s “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” the first of the autobiographic trilogy of the prolific writer’s life.
Simon’s first show on Broadway was 1961’s “Barefoot in the Park.” From then on, the theatrical genus wrote around 30 more hit plays and almost as many screenplays along with numerous television programs, which began with Sid Caesar’s “Your Show of Shows,” which he did along with Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks and Selma Diamond.
Sadly, Neil Simon passed away August 26; just 12 days before LP opened the play which introduced audiences to a look at the pubescent world of almost 15-year-old Eugene Jerome and family.
Eugene, a young Brooklyn-born, Jewish boy lives with his mother Kate, hardworking father Jack and older brother Stanley (18½). Extra baggage, due to the death of her husband, is Kate’s younger sister Blanche Morton and her two girls, Nora (16½) and Laurie (13).
Like any normal teenaged boy of the era, Eugene’s thoughts are filled with sports and girls – mainly girls and what they really look like with no clothes on. This is 1937; the almost end of the Great Depression and the almost beginning of World War II. These were gentler times with no TV, no Playboy Magazine, no X, R, or even PG13 movie ratings. Children minded their parents (pretty much) and did household chores without getting pay other than room and board – and love. Today’s minimum hourly wage was about the same as many folks weekly salary. Ah, the good old days! Of course, a decent yearly salary was around $2,000 but butter was 5 cents a pound, bread was 10 cents a loaf and milk was 4 cents a quart.
“Brighton Beach Memoirs” is directed by John Olive. Olive recently returned to the Puget Sound area after an extended absence. Upon his return, Olive made for Lakewood Playhouse where he not only had worked but, in 1990, was the theatre’s first Artistic Director. Olive is also a trained scenic designer; he shows his prowess with the excellent set for BBM.
Olive put a fence around a small front yard, which has a park bench near the gate; a stage right entrance to the parlor/dinning room with an escape to the unseen kitchen across on stage left. A short stair case on stage right leads up to a hallway with a bathroom door on the right and two bedroom doors center right and left; the boys’ room is on the right; the girls’ on the left.
Rachel Wilkie does costumes, which are near perfect for the era. The one exception is the white, satin Baby Louis heels with a double strap worn by Nora who would never wear white satin shoes everyday. Michalyn Thomson does the lighting design. John Munn does sound, including pre-show music of the era. Karrie Morrison does good props and Madisen Crowley is Stage Manager; Tyler Petty is her assistant.
The cast is a director’s dream. Four of the seven actors are making their LP debut.
Kate-Lynn Siemers, who plays the younger cousin Laurie, is a new-comer to LP. Siemers, a senior at Rogers High School, plays her role like the over-protected child with a slight heart problem with the understanding of a youngster who knows how to play the “Oh, I’m too tired to help do that chore” but is never too weak or tired to run to the local grocery store for ice cream. Her character is very nicely developed.
Andrea Gordon returns as Nora Morton, the talented girl who, at 16 wants to leave school and go on tour with a dance company with visions of Broadway dancing in her head. The audience can feel Gordon’s willingness to give up all she’s been working for since first grade to reach for the brass ring of success in her desired profession. Gordon gives Nora the true feeling of confidence of her age that she will be doing the right thing to go with the company but demands permission from her mother and Uncle Jack to commit to leaving her family for the fear of adulthood.
W. Scott Pinkston is Jack Jerome, the father who tries to fill his family’s needs of love and understanding while eking out a 40-hour salary for a 72-hours work week. Pinkston shows his frustration with the world and his dwindling corner of it which always seems to place stumbling blocks in his way to even the smallest success. However, even though exasperated, Pinkston pulls Jack out of remorse for himself to come to the aid of his family. Pinkston shows his acting prowess when he says to his family, “With people like us, sometimes all we have is dignity,” and the family and the audience believes this is true because Pinkston believes.
Pamela Roza, another first timer at Lakewood, is Kate Jerome, Jack’s loving wife with a coat of steel armor around her life with only brief apertures to let out the love. Roza finds her character with understanding with what Kate goes through, running her household, raising her sons, helping raise her nieces and curry to her younger sister and loving her husband but unable to offer much help in his dilemmas. Roza has played this role before. Her professional demeanor shows the actor has remembered the best of previous performances and bettered her role to perfection. She has the iron fist velvet glove down pat and turns a very fine performance.
Brynne Garman is the widowed sister, who has always been dependent of the kindness of – family. Garman is a mother hen looking after her children – especially her youngest daughter. She is a lost lamb without the help of her deceased husband. She is an injured fawn when confronted with the disapproval of her dominating sister. Garman plays her menagerie with the understanding of the pampered sister. Garman is a good actor who never fails in giving the audience a good performance.
Andrew Fox Burden is older brother Stanley. Burden makes his community theatre debut with this role. The character comes natural to the Puyallup High School senior, and he shows his understanding of his role as the big brother and how much he should tell his junior sibling about life and the real world. Burden shows his character’s balancing on the cusp of adulthood when confessing an error to his mother. This young man plans are to head for Pierce College then to UW to study anthropology and theater. Let’s hope theater comes high on his list so he continues to give the audiences such good performances.
Drew Gates is a student from Auburn Riverside High School, who makes his Lakewood debut. This remarkable young thespian is deeply involved with Theatre and, hopefully, will be for years to come. In a word, Gates is excellent. He isn’t acting – he’s living his role – but he does it with such panache and variety of emotions he makes all of his moves completely believable – even when the character breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audiences with explanatory asides. Gates’ line interpretation is right on, his phrasing is exact and his line-delivery and reactions are perfection. Keep up the good work and come back to Lakewood so we can enjoy your skills again.
“Brighton Beach Memoirs” continues at The Lakewood Playhouse in the northeast section of the Lakewood Towne Center, just behind the Pierce Transit Bus Depot through September 30, each Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. with Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. There are two Thursday Pay-What-You-Can performances, September 13 and an Actor’s Benefit performance September 20; both are at 8 p.m.
For more information or reservations, call the box office at (253) 588-0042 or go online to www.lakewoodplayhouse.org.
Lakewood’s production of “Brighton Beach Memoirs” is an apt memorial to the playwright. Not only did the entire cast do their parts the way the author would have wanted them to, each also found the true meaning of Simon’s work – the most important thing in the world is family. These seven actors showed they understand that point.
They have become a family.