Journey through family's tears and laughter at 'Brighton Beach'

Young actors excel in Prince George's Little Theatre's season opener

  • From left: Jill Goodrich as Blanche Morton, Annalie Ellis as Laurie Morton, Nora Zanger as Kate Jerome, Casey Baum as Eugene Jerome and Sophie Speciale as Nora Morton in "Brighton Beach Memoirs," on stage at the Bowie Playhouse through Sept. 13. Photo by Bud Johnson, for The Baltimore Sun
From left: Jill Goodrich as Blanche Morton, Annalie Ellis as… (Bud Johnson, for The Baltimore…)
September 04, 2014|By Mary Johnson, For The Baltimore Sun

Neil Simon's "Brighton Beach Memoirs" opens the 55th season for Prince George's Little Theatre, and the production at Bowie Playhouse qualifies as the troupe's strongest start in recent memory.

This is inspired theater by every measure, starting with the choice of the largely autobiographical 1968 work by Simon, which traces his adolescent years, to begin what became known as his Eugene Trilogy.

Perhaps because of frequent stagings of "The Odd Couple" and other favorites at regional theaters, Simon is sometimes dismissed as a master of the one-liner but lacking in substance. But in "Brighton Beach Memoirs," Simon touches audiences' hearts while proving he can mine laughter in any situation.

Audiences are taken inside the lives of a family coping with difficult problems. We witness how 15-year-old Eugene uses humor to deal with pressure while the family confronts adversity. A powerful weapon, humor helps this brave, hard-working, loving Jewish family survive.

Simon's nostalgic snapshot is brought to life by an excellent Prince George's crew, starting with director Ken Kienas.

Kienas lets the color of laughter and love shine through the shadows of the 1937 Depression setting.

In his director's notes, Kienas says he was attracted to this play because of "the strong roles given to teen actors." He shares his belief that "community theater should provide shows and opportunities that appeal to all members of the community, including young people."

This show certainly fulfills that goal, and the uniformly excellent cast presents a credible and endearing family portrait. Welcoming us is the central character and narrator, Eugene Morris Jerome, brilliantly played by Casey Baum. The young actor first appears outside the family home pitching a baseball, confiding that he wants to be either a baseball player or a writer. He may lack the requisite skills for the first choice, but seems well on his way to the second as he wittily records daily happenings in his journal.

Perceptive and sensitive beyond his early teen years, Baum's Eugene is also a wise-cracking junior Borscht Belt comic who becomes what we imagine the actual young Simon was decades ago.

Baum also excels at ensemble playing, producing natural comedy and major laughs with older brother Stanley, played by Mike Culhane. Stanley shares his knowledge of girls and cautions Eugene about fantasizing about his cousin Nora, while also advising his younger brother on family matters.

As Nora, Key School of Annapolis sophomore Sophia Speciale is suitably lovely and conveys a 16-year-old's independence and ambition. Younger sister Laurie is well-played by Annalie Ellis, who communicates mature pride beneath her character's strong, manipulative talents.

Adult roles are played with equal excellence. Nora Zanger produces a strong, multifaceted mother in her portrayal of Kate Jerome. As her younger sister, widow Blanche, Jill Goodrich conveys the character's heartsick dependency on her sister, along with Blanche's inability to act decisively with her daughters.

Head-of-household Jack Jerome, played by Steve Feder, conveys fatherly wisdom and generosity of spirit, finding time to advise his sons and his sister-in-law's children. Honorable and sensitive, this is an overworked man stretched to his limits, yet retaining his humanity and parental poise.

As director, Kienas is supported by an dedicated technical staff that includes set designer Cynthia Bentley and set decorator-painter Roy Peterson. Together they create an authentic, livable Jerome household. Most importantly, this is a workable set with a first-floor living and dining room, suggested kitchen, back door and stairway leading to second-floor bedrooms for Eugene and Stanley, and another stairway for Laurie and Nora.

Adding to this production's historical authenticity is the costume design by Malca Giblin, whose garments enhance every actor's portrayal. Giblin's costumes reflect stylish adult women of limited budgets as well as teen girls whose plaid skirts, white bobby sox and saddle shoes recall Frank Sinatra's swooning fans of a few years later. Her wardrobes for father and sons resemble those in classic 1930s films.

As in most Bowie Playhouse productions, Garrett Hyde's sensitive lighting design emphasizes drama and visually enhances the overall production.

Also contributing to the success of this show — as educator at Compass Rose Theatre Young Actors' Studio — is Lucinda Merry-Browne. She was in the opening-night audience, voicing well-deserved pride in her Compass Rose students, Speciale and Baum.

Prince George's Little Theatre's production of "Brighton Beach Memoirs" at Bowie Playhouse, 16500 White Marsh Park Drive, continues with shows at 2 p.m. Sept. 7, 8 p.m. Sept. 12, and 2 p.m. Sept. 13. Tickets may be ordered from the Prince George's Little Theatre box office at 301-937-PGLT.

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