note: entire contents copyright 2011 by Sheila Barth
Anything associated with New York wasn’t popular in the Bay State on Super Bowl weekend, but audiences at Marblehead Little Theatre’s production of Neil Simon’s comedy, “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” enjoyed the warmth and laughter of this tale set in 1937 Brooklyn. The production ran Jan. 27 through Feb. 5. Actor Owen Grover, a Boston College senior portraying 15-year-old Eugene Morris Jerome, wore a New York Yankees baseball cap, and designer Andrew Barnett’s handsome, two-tiered set sported a Yankees pennant on the wall. Nobody in the packed theater cared. The props were necessary to Simon’s charming coming-of-age tale that resonates today, despite radically changed mores.
Eugene’s sexual curiosity peaks, and he guiltily lusts after his pretty, 16-year-old cousin, Nora Morton, (Jacqui Amrich) who lives in his house, along with her sickly younger sister, Laurie, (who has a flutter in her heart) and her asthmatic, pretty, widowed mom, Blanche (Meghan Holtz). Marblehead High School freshman-thespian Annie Krivit as bookish, pampered Laurie provides a charming foil to her more dramatic, pretty older sister.
After Blanche’s husband died of cancer at age 36, leaving Blanche and the girls with no insurance money or any other means of support, Eugene’s parents, Kate (Ursina Amsler), who is Blanche’s older sister, and her kindly husband, Jacob “Jack” Jerome (Bobby Kerrigan), took them in and supported them. These first-generation Americans’ generosity wasn’t unusual in those days. Families of displaced European immigrants and downtrodden relatives did so, without hesitation, regardless of their finances.
Many people, like Jack, had to leave school and earn a living at a young age, forcing them into menial jobs, and working two jobs at a time. Jack cuts out raincoats nine hours a day, then schleps party favors at Delmar’s store to earn an extra $25 a week. But “Brighton Beach Memoirs” isn’t about grief and sadness. It’s a heartwarming tale of two families, living together as one, who face problems together, while struggling financially and facing potential world war - and the prospect of displaced relatives overseas seeking refuge here.
As Eugene dreams of becoming a writer or a Yankees pitcher someday, he’s perplexed about his onslaught of puberty, while his older brother, Stanley, works daily to bolster the family income. Stanley (poignantly portrayed by Alex Grover, who is Owen Grover’s real-life older brother) has principles and faces being fired after standing up for a poor, mistreated fellow employee. Unfortunately, the family is dependent on Stanley’s $17 weekly income, especially after Jack loses his second job, when Delmar’s suddenly folded, and he suffers a mild heart attack.
Nora is upset because she has a chance to audition for a Broadway show, but Blanche and Jack insist she stay in school and complete her education. As Blanche and Nora struggle for increased independence and Eugene grapples with the throes of adolescence, his pragmatic, clean freak mother, Kate, (Ursina Amsler) is the strength and glue that holds everyone together, despite the family’s daily travails and looming challenges. Each one faces his inner feelings and weaknesses, as the family unravels, breaking apart, yet clinging together through love and understanding.
Director Steve Black has helmed a talented cast that punctuated every scene, allowing each actor to shine during dramatically pivotal and comical moments. Owen Grover was youthfully exuberant throughout, as he narrated and made eye contact with the audience, as was older brother Alex, whose lowkey mien speaks volumes.
For information on future Marblehead Little Theatre shows, visit www.MLTlive.org or call 781-631-9697.