`Brighton Beach Memoirs' a romp at Oldcastle

Classic Neil Simon comedy opens on local stage

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BENNINGTON — Oldcastle Theatre Company continues its 48th season with a rousing production of Neil Simon's classic "Brighton Beach Memoirs," directed by Nathan Stith and running through July 28.

The semi-autobiographical play is the first of what has become known as The Eugene Trilogy, the opus that sealed Simon's reputation past just comedy, demonstrating that he was capable of producing serious themes and scripts.

The story takes place in the Jerome house in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn in September 1937, in two acts about a week apart. The pall of war in Europe and the rise of Nazi Germany hang over the entire family.

Dreaming of baseball and girls, Eugene Morris Jerome (D.J. Gleason), 15, must cope with the mundane existence of his family life: formidable mother Kate (Sarah Corey), overworked father (Eli Ganias), and his somewhat-worldly older brother Stanley (Anthony J. Ingargiola), 18.

Throw into the mix his widowed Aunt Blanche Morton (Sophia Garder) and her two young (but rapidly aging) daughters, the sickly Laurie (Kristen Herink), 13, and the saucy Nora (Kate Kenney), 16, and you have a recipe not only for a series of good laughter, but also for visceral family drama given both world and hyperlocal events.

Stith, a college drama professor who has adeptly directed and acted in numerous Oldcastle shows, has always shown a great sense of timing when mixing comedy and drama, and given the performance his actors put in, this time was no different, much to the audience's delight on opening night.

The two sisters, Kenney's Nora and Herink's Laurie, were opposite bookends and a fine acting study in contrasts. Each of them played their character to near-annoying perfection because, well, both sisters have such qualities about them, especially in their dynamic affecting the Jeromes. Nicely done!

Their mother, Blanche, was played beautifully by Sophia Garder, who was able to skillfully cross the comedic line into the realm of grief and empathy in a manner that made us yearn for her relief. Not an easy trick, but Garder makes it look that way.

Ingargiola's Stanley convinced us that the older boy is a pivotal character, more that is often given credit. Young Mr. I's intensity sold us the goods on how important the older brother is in terms of story continuity, and shaking the entire household into sobering reality.

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Gleason was 100 percent fun and genuine as Eugene, and kept the audience in stitches with his dorky teenage boy high-energy, high wire act, while right on his heels the entire time, the inimitable Corey worked the powerful vibe of strong Jewish family matriarch to the point of head nods and sheer admiration from an audience which recognized her Kate as the story's center of gravity. Nothing happened on that stage until Corey give the sign.

This left the moral compass role to Ganias. Setting apart his uncanny and near-eerie resemblance with my own (late) father (who passed away 23 years ago), his Jack was absolutely believable in his rage, his illness, as well as his compassion and humanity. It was a subtle yet standout performance that earns Ganias an extra salute.

Scenic design by Richard Howe was one of the better set-ups of the upstairs-downstairs Jerome home I have witnessed after seeing this show about a dozen times. Costumes by Ursula McCarty were colorful, vibrant and faithful to the period, giving the entire play a genuine retro Brooklyn look.

Lights by David V. Groupe were incisively deployed throughout, and sound by Corey Wheat reverberated nicely into the story's consciousness. The show was tightly stage managed by the ever-vigilant Liz Raymond.

There is much to like in this production, not least of which is the pure entertainment value of fun, fun, fun at a time of the summer when the mercury is finally climbing in New England and we can all use a good outburst of laughter to cure whatever ails us.

We are reminded that while life is a serious journey and no two people under one roof will look at it the same way, laughter remains a calming influence and a presence that allows us to appreciate that another family's grass isn't always greener.

The intimacy of Oldcastle's cozy 140 seat arena - now finally owned directly by the theater company - continue to be every production's X factor. The closeness to the floor level stage of every seat in the house make the theater-going experience something very special.

Add to that a classic play with inspiring acting, and where else would you want to spend a two and a half hours (intermission included)? So go. Laugh. Cry. And rise to your feet in praise of this terrific show.

"Brighton Beach Memoirs" by Neil Simon and directed by Nathan Stith, will run through July 28 at Oldcastle Theatre Company in the Bennington Performing Arts Center (BPAC), 331 Main St., Bennington. Info and tickets: 802-447-0564, or www.oldcastle theatre.org

Telly Halkias is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association. E-mail: tchalkias@aol.com, Twitter: @Telly Halkias


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