Family, optimism prevail in ‘Brighton Beach’

Kathie Isaac-Luke /

Stage 3 Theatre Company brings its 2012 season to a close with Neil Simon's captivating coming-of-age comedy, "Brighton Beach Memoirs."

The play premiered on Broadway in 1983, where it enjoyed a three-year run. Simon's semi-autobiographical script is irresistibly filled with humor, depth and unforgettable characters.

Set in Brooklyn during the Depression, the story, revolving around the struggles of an extended family, is very realistic and never seems dated. The concerns of the family members are so universal that they remain timely and relevant.

Director Don Bilotti has assembled a very fine cast for this production. Some members of the cast are Stage 3 veterans, and some are new, but all are excellent in their respective roles. The direction is crisp and tight, and the action moves along very quickly.

The characters speak with Brooklyn accents that are subtle and consistent throughout, and consequently, never become a distraction.

Making an impressive Stage 3 debut in the essential role of Eugene Jerome is 13-year-old Kii Kellerman. His Eugene provides the narration and much of the humor and context of the story.

Kellerman connects with the audience the moment he enters. Eugene's preoccupations are with baseball and the newly mysterious subject of girls. His observations on these topics, and his self-deprecating humor, make for very funny theater. In an effort to make sense of his life and the quirks of his family, Eugene keeps a running journal of the perplexing occurrences at home.

Another Stage 3 newcomer, Joshua Robben, gives an equally strong performance as Eugene's older brother, Stanley.

Struggling to grow up during difficult economic times, Stanley is feeling significant pressure at the age of 18. Robben is entirely convincing as his character searches for his identity and place in the world. The scenes with his younger brother, where he tries to school him in some of the facts of life, are both funny and touching.

Kate, their mother, exudes worry and vexation as she tries to keep her two sons in line. Traci Sprague, who has an impressive list of theater credits, brings wit and energy to this complex role.

In addition to providing a counter to Eugene's wisecracks, Kate cannot help but concern herself with the welfare of all of the other characters.

Mike Moon plays Jack, the father and head of the Jerome household. Moon, who was so good as the political adviser in Stage 3's production of "November," turns in another stellar performance in a very different role.

In addition to navigating job loss, debt and other family crises, Jack also is an example and guide, not only to his own children, but to those of his sister-in-law. In Moon's capable hands, a picture emerges of Jack as a decent, caring and forgiving man.

Making her theatrical debut is Susan Chapman as Kate's younger widowed sister, Blanche. With her two daughters, Blanche has had to move in with her sister's family. Chapman does an excellent job capturing the younger sister's reticence and hesitation.

In the second act, she reveals a more assertive side as long buried sibling rivalry rises to the fore and causes sparks to fly.

Eleven-year-old Haliana Orman-Shindler plays Laurie, Blanche's younger daughter. In her Stage 3 debut, Orman-Shindler gives a charming and assured performance as the frail Laurie. Because of a heart condition, Laurie is pampered by the other characters, much to the chagrin of Eugene.

Kaitlyn Brennan, who played a powerful Anne Frank at Stage 3, is Nora, Blanche's older daughter. Nora is at variance with her mother about her future plans, and the conflicts between mother and daughter are both believable and poignant. In an outstanding performance, Brennan deftly handles the transition between a bubbly, effervescent teenager and the sullen young woman who must put her dreams on hold.

Ron Cotnam's multilevel set creates the illusion of space as the characters move from room to room. The lighting by Matt Leamy directs the audience's attention to just where it should be. The attractive and authentic Depression-era costumes are by Diana Newington.

Crowded into a small house in a time of deprivation and fear, it is inevitable that the members of this family would clash, and clash they do. Yet, there is never any question of their love and devotion to one another.

This richly entertaining, funny and tender play, with its affirming messages of the importance of family and optimism in the face of adversity, is an ideal play for the holiday season.

Parents should be advised that the play contains some language and adult situations that younger children may find confusing.

"Brighton Beach Memoirs" runs through Dec. 23. For reservations, call 536-1778 or visit stage3.org.

11884475
The Union Democrat
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