Theater Review: Insightful ‘Blues’ at Pa. Playhouse
The Pennsylvania Playhouse has chalked up another memorable production, this time with Neil Simon’s masterful Tony Award-winning play “Biloxi Blues,” on stage through Feb. 23.
This is the second chapter in a semi-autobiographical “Eugene Trilogy” that includes “Brighton Beach Memoirs” and “Broadway Bound.” All three cover the life of Eugene Morris Jerome, Neil Simon’s alter-ego.
The script of “Biloxi Blues” sets the play mostly at Eugene’s military barracks in Biloxi, Miss., where he is stationed for basic training in 1943. The timing for the local production couldn’t be better, since 2020 is the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II.
“Biloxi Blues” is expertly directed by Gary Boyer, himself an actor, as well as a regular stage director at the Playhouse. He has created a cohesive and high-quality collaboration in all the creative and technical aspects of the play. The Feb. 8 performance was seen for this review.
Boyer’s casting of the seven male and two female players is spot-on. The results are convincing portrayals of the characters who find themselves in complex and highly-emotional situations, but are able to maintain the innate humor of the script.
Jack Miller (Eugene) is engaging as the coming-of-age recruit thrust into a barracks of disparate privates facing a sobering future. He is a narrator of sorts, standing in the stage spotlight each time he reveals the observations he has written in his journal.
Miller captures the naiveté of Eugene on the brink of growing up. His facial expressions are a reflection of who he “is” and his reactions at any given time.
The central character in “Biloxi” is played sensitively by Cody Jackson as the harassed Arnold Epstein, who starts out as everybody’s victim, but winds up turning the tables. In his character’s journey, Jackson strikes the right balance between resignation and renewal.
On another level, Brian Keller as Drill Sgt. Merwin J. Toomey has a tough part to play because he must be at once motivator, counselor and mentor to his soldiers, and dreaded taskmaster demanding unquestioned obedience. He must also deal with his own demons. Keller does a commendable job of handling the conflicting nuances of Toomey’s character.
Adding their talents to the cast are Chris D’Imperio (Roy Selridge), Kristin Henriksen Shea (Joseph Wykowski), Gabriel Craig (Don Carney), Senoll Donley (James Hennesey), Jennifer Russoli (Rowena) and Rebecca Cain (Daisy).
Kudos also to the cast and crew who accomplish 16 scene changes with nary a glitch. A good part of the play takes place in the Army barracks, and the bunk beds are an imposing element of the set. They are on wheels, can be stowed quickly, and just as easily retrieved.
“Biloxi Blues” is billed as having adult subject matter. Very true, but Simon manages to insulate what might be provocative with a skillful application of humor.
Simon’s ability to understand the peculiarities within a situation is what makes “Biloxi Blues” both an insightful and an entertaining theater piece.
Tickets: Pennsylvania Playhouse Box Office, 390 Illick’s Mill Road, Bethlehem; paplayhouse.org; 610-865-6665