STORY WRITTEN BY ELLEN WILSON DILKS
For Digital First Media
Malvern’s People’s Light & Theatre continues its 40th season with a production of Neil Simon’s “Biloxi Blues,” through May 24. Directed by Samantha Bellomo, Simon’s comedy features a solid cast of young actors, many of whom are new to the PLTC stage. Written in 1985, “Biloxi Blues” draws on Simon’s own experiences as a private in the Army. He enlisted at age 17 solely because of the glamorous war images Hollywood presented.
“Biloxi Blues” is the second of Simon’s semi-autobiographical trilogy, also known as the “Eugene Plays.” The play follows the character of Eugene Morris Jerome to boot camp in Biloxi, Mississippi, during the early days of World War II. A naïve teen, Eugene is totally unprepared for what he encounters during his training. James Michael Lambert brings tremendous charm and solid comedic timing to this pivotal role; it is great fun watching him navigate Eugene’s growth from callow kid to soldier. He instantly engages the audience and draws the viewer in during Eugene’s monologues. Jordan Geiger matches Lambert perfectly as the freethinking Arnold Epstein (I identified with him the most). Geiger brings great depth and a quiet strength to the character of a young man who isn’t going to let the US Army compromise his belief system.
These two New Yorkers of the Jewish faith soon come up against a prejudice they have never really faced before during their sheltered upbringing in Brooklyn. Some of their fellow platoon members aren’t exactly without prejudices. Led by Jon Mulhearn’s charmingly smarmy Pvt. Joseph Wykowski, Eugene and Arnold are subjected to anti-Semitism. Mulhearn does a terrific job of making this character likeable in spite of his flaws.Joining Wykowski are Roy Selridge (nicely played by Joseph Michael O’Brien) and Don Carney (a solid Ben Harter-Murphy). O’Brien and Murphy are totally believable as gawky young men on the brink of adulthood. The three also harass Epstein, convinced he must be homosexual. Simon’s handling of the subject (in an era long before “Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell) is extremely sensitive and beautifully written—with wonderful work by the final member of the platoon, Luke Brahdt as James Hennesey. Brahdt is memorable in a small but crucial role.
Associate Artistic Director Pete Pryor is both funny and frightening as the tough-as-nails Drill Sgt. Merwin J. Toomey. Any former members of the armed services in attendance were probably having flashbacks as they watched Pryor’s performance. Rounding out this excellent ensemble are the always strong Julianna Zinkel as Rowena ( a local “lady of the evening”) and a great newcomer named Clare Mahoney as Daisy Hannigan—Eugene’s first love. Both ladies brighten up this testosterone heavy production.
Director Samantha Bellomo keeps things moving on James F. Pyne Jr.’s fluid and well thought out set. She has done a great job of balancing Simon’s blend of humor and pathos. Paul Hackenmueller’s lighting serves the production nicely, placing focus where needed, and Marla J. Jurglanis has done her usual top-notch job of costuming everyone, totally evoking the look of the 1940s. Adding to the overall effect is a terrific soundscape by Michael Kiley. It was a great blend of 40s pop, Mississippi blues and military music.
“Biloxi Blues” is Neil Simon in his prime; it’s loaded with laughs, but there’s a good story as well. It is an enjoyable time watching young men facing an uncertain future with bravado and humor. The fact they are awakened to some of life’s tougher aspects adds depth to the story, making it more than a sit-com. I recommend making the “march” to Malvern to catch this highly entertaining production before it ships out.
IF YOU GO: People’s Light & Theatre is at 39 Conestoga Road (Rourt 401). For ticket information, call 610-644-3500 or visit www.peopleslight.org.