Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Simon's semi-autobiographical story is set in 1937 Brooklyn in the neighborhood of Brighton Beach. The Depression lingers on, while Hitler is rising to power overseas in Germany. The play focuses on 15-year-old Eugene Jerome and his family as they face financial hardship with a poignant resilience along with lots of spunk and humor. The Jerome family's finances are tight, now that Aunt Blanche and her two teenage daughters have moved into the house. Dad is tired and overworked, mom is stern, and Eugene, who dreams of being a writer, is also dreaming about playing for the Yankees while his hormones are raging. Through a clear, structured story with well-defined characters, Simon manages to portray the timeless message that family matters and that disagreements and mistakes are only bumps in the road.
Director Rick Davis balances the humor and heart in the play, never letting the comical moments get too sappy and ensuring the dramatic moments land appropriately. He also has found a small talented cast who all create finely shaded portrayals. As Eugene, George Piccininni-Avery is full of charm. He has a winning delivery in his narration as he reports on the trials and tribulations of his family. Piccininni-Avery is engaging and enduring in the part and does quite well with many of Eugene's comical lines. He doesn't quite land every joke, but I have faith that, given a few more performances to get the timing right, he will. He also manages a fairly good Brooklyn accent and is adept at achieving Eugene's quick-witted and sarcastic commentary. Since Eugene is blamed for just about everything that happens in the Jerome house, when he exuberantly states, Guess who's going to get blamed for the war in Europe?, you can't help but chuckle.
Heidi Carpenter and Wade Moran portray Eugene's parents Kate and Jack. Carpenter is exceptional as the strong woman who tries to hold the family together. Kate is the emotional center of this family and, even if she shows her love by constantly nagging Eugene, Carpenter is skilled in her guilt-inducing portrayal so we know Kate is only behaving the way she does due to the love she has for her family. Moran is convincing as the head of the Jerome household. His measured line delivery, slightly hunched over physical stature, and slow mannerisms show us that Jack is tired and worn-out. Moran also does well in showing us that Jack is concerned about his family and worries about them, yet also is attentive to their needs. Jack also serves as the surrogate father to his two nieces who live with him, and Wade is strong and parental in his scenes with his four young cast members as Jack doles out fatherly advice. It is a mostly quiet, sensitive performance which is a nice balance to Carpenter's more stern, vocal portrayal.
As Eugene's impulsive, yet charismatic and loyal older brother Stanley, Zane Wiles is effective in portraying the range of emotions this young man goes through. Wiles is skilled in portraying Stanley's transformation from the man who wants to escape to a young man who is becoming a responsible adult. The scene Wiles has with Moran, in which they discuss a dilemma that Stanley is facing, is done with a natural delivery that shows how his character thinks, responds and changes. Marlene Galan-Woods is good as Eugene's Aunt Blanche, a woman who is insecure, lacks confidence, and is unsure of what to do now that she has lost her husband. Blanche's confrontation with Kate, as she realizes her worth, her need for independence, and the strength she has been missing, is well played. Kristina Capra and Skylar Ryan portray Blanche's two daughters and both do well in playing these two very different sisters. Capra is more quiet and subdued as the girl who is constantly told she has a heart condition and must take things easy, while Ryan is a hoot as the headstrong, energetic older sister who, like Eugene, has big dreams of her own. Ryan is perfect in her scene with Galan-Woods where mother and daughter come to a realization about themselves.
Matt Stetler's set design packs the two-story Jerome house into the small Actor's Café space. A raised level in the back represents the girls' and boys' bedrooms with a small staircase to connect it with the lower level that portrays the living and dining rooms of the house. It works effectively and the small space also helps solidify the cramped space that the seven inhabitants of the Jerome house are forced to share. The only part that doesn't quite work is the fact that the front entry of the house appears to be inside the living room. But it only takes a short time to understand how the door is being used to represent the front door of the house. Stetler also provides the sound and lighting design; his lighting is good in highlighting the focus of specific scenes and the spotlight on Eugene's narration. Rhea and Mickey Courtney's costumes are touching and period perfect.
While the Jerome family may not be as complex as those families in recent prize winning dramas such as August: Osage County and Next to Normal, Brighton Beach Memoirs is still a rich story of one family working through the challenges that life brings them. Simon's story may have characters that wear their hearts on their sleeves, but it is a timeless story that shows that love and laughter and the power of love and family will always win the day. DST's production has a fine cast and clear direction, resulting in a charming, funny, and touching theatrical treat.
For more information on Brighton Beach Memoirs at Desert Stages Theatre in Scottsdale, that runs through March 13th, 2016, call 480 483-1664 or visit desertstages.org.
Directed by Rick Davis
Cast: (in order of appearance)