STORY WRITTEN BY RITA CHARLESTON
For Digital First Media
Neil Simon is considered one of America’s most successful and prolific playwrights. For more than five decades, his ability to create humor from the lives and struggles of everyday people continues to resonate with audiences everywhere. On the 30th anniversary of the Broadway debut of “Biloxi Blues,” People’s Light is presenting the Tony Award-winnig play through May 24.
Inspired by Simon’s own experience in boot camp during World War II, “Biloxi Blues” is the second chapter in what is known as Simon’s Eugene trilogy, following “Brighton Beach Memoirs” and preceding “Broadway Bound.”
It follows the basic training of the Jewish Brooklyn-born Eugene Jerome in 1943 while stationed in Biloxi, Mississippi. Along the way, Eugene confronts anti-Semitism and his first sexual experience, while suffering under the hard-nosed, hard-drinking platoon leader. And the whole time he wonders if he’ll live long enough to achieve his dreams.
Playing Eugene is People’s Light newcomer James Michael Lambert. A graduate of UCLA where he studied theater, he originally wanted to be a baseball player. Majoring originally in sports communication, he says, “My first thought was to become a sports announcer, and hopefully still be able to play baseball. But in my sophomore year at school I took a class in acting and decided to switch to theater, something I began to appreciate because I found out it helped you learn a lot about yourself. So by my junior year I switched to theater thinking I’d rather have a career that I could continue even as I grew older and was not age-related like baseball.”
So after graduating with a degree in theater, film and TV, Lambert got involved in regional productions in such theaters as South Coast Repertory, Geffen Playhouse, Sacramento Music Circus and others. He also landed a role in the Emmy Award-winning series “Mad Men,” and a national tour in “Happy Days: A New Musical” alongside Garry Marshall and Paul Williams.
“Those were great times,” Lambert said, “but eventually I decided to move to New York as the next step to learning and growing. It’s very difficult to get shows in L.A.”
Taking on his first role at People’s Light today is also creating some great times for this actor. He says “This is an incredible theater company. They’ve created a very loving and nurturing process so it brings out the best in all of us. And partnering with them is amazing.”
As far as Simon’s play, “this is a coming of age story and I can relate to Eugene in some ways,” Lambert said. “Eugene may be a little naive, but in the best way possible. And he has a heart of gold. As Eugene I also get a chance to talk to the audience and that’s always fun.”
Lambert adds that the actors did a good amount of research to make their roles as authentic as possible, including learning the history of the time, how the people dressed and more. “We also talked to veterans who taught us how to properly march and stand in attention. I know that we can never be part of an entire life during that time, but in doing research we got to learn much more about that time period.”
Having been in the acting profession for eight years, Lambert believes Eugene may well become one of his favorite characters in his favorite show. “I love playing characters that have heart and are trying to do the best they can every day of their lives. There’s a lesson to be learned there.”
IF YOU GO: People’s Light is at 39 Conestoga Road in Malvern. For tickets check http://peopleslight.org or call (610) 644-3500.