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Nostalgic play evokes empathy for family

OKOBOJI, Iowa -- Playwright Neil Simon has long been known as the master of the comic one-liner. Toward the latter part of his highly successful career, which spanned about 30 years, his plays took on a more serious approach when he blended emotional scenes and stronger characterizations with comedic elements.

Semi-autobiographical and first of a trilogy, "Brighton Beach Memoirs" is one of Simon's most interesting creations. "Biloxi Blues" and "Broadway Bound" followed to continue his life's story. All three plays were produced on Broadway during the 1980s.

"Brighton Beach," currently showing at the Okoboji Summer Theatre, offers plenty of wry and clever dialogue; yet you'll probably take home from the theater a strong feeling of empathy for this Jewish family, the Jeromes, in Brooklyn, N.Y., during the Great Depression of 1937 as World War II loomed on the horizon.

The boy Eugene, whom Simon models after himself as an adolescent, serves as both narrator and active participant. The role is handled capably and with appropriate energy and sparkle by Stephens College student Charles Evans. Younger brother in the Jerome household, Eugene wants more time to perfect his baseball pitching arm or to write about his daily life and dreams of the future in his journal. Instead he finds that he's constantly interrupted to help around the house, to run errands and to be nice to his girl-cousins who, along with their widowed mother, share the home.

Eugene feels he gets faulted for everything that goes wrong. Example of a witty line, Eugene points at himself and exclaims: "Guess who's going to get the blame for the war in Europe!"

With money extremely tight, Eugene's father works two jobs to support his own family of four plus his wife's sister and her two daughters. The only other wage earner is Eugene's older brother, who brings home $17 a week.

Professional actor Michael Rapport heads the supporting cast with a splendid characterization of the over-burdened, though loving, father, who may be suffering from a heart condition.

His wife, something of a stereotypical Jewish mother, slim and attractive, is a constant worrier and a bit of a martyr, very well played by Betsy Shirey, although her rapid-fire conversation is often difficult to "catch."

Sarah Pinzl, as gentle Aunt Blanche, shines in the second act, giving voice to her own worries during a powerful confrontation with her sister. As Blanche's 16-year-old daughter, who is tempted by a chance to audition from a theater producer, Juliana Jones does a mostly-convincing job, alternating between joyful and sullen. Chey Jezreel fits the role of the little sister in looks and actions, but doesn't enunciate well enough to be understood.

Alex Herrera offers a polished portrayal of the older son, who craves independence without being quite ready to make his way in the world. Funny, yet moving scenes occur in the privacy of the room the brothers share.

The second act becomes the powerful part of this show. Patience is required during Act 1 while the family relationships unfold slowly. The true meaning comes in Act 2, giving the play substance and turning "Brighton Beach" into a satisfying experience. The Jerome family learns that love brings them all together, even as the household awaits relatives from Poland, seeking sanctuary from the approaching take-over by the Nazi regime.

Since the audience is primarily an older crowd, one would hope that voices might be amplified better so that the Simon one-liners could be enjoyed by everyone.

Directed by Suzy Messerole, "Brighton Beach Memoirs" can also boast of its adaptable and appealing set design: the living area, a heavily-traveled stairway to the upper level and steps outside the front door where private conversations can be shared.

This memory play continues through Sunday with the usual matinee performance on Saturday, the Fourth of July, but no evening show due to the enthusiasm of the Iowa Lakes community for fireworks.