Raven’s “Brighton Beach Memoirs” Is An Enjoyable Classic That Never Ages

imagesReviewed by: Russell Goeltenbodt:

There is something to say about classics. No matter how often you see some classic productions, you continue to enjoy them and often find new things to appreciate.  This is true for the Raven Theater’s production of Brighton Beach Memoirs.   Brighton Beach Memoirs by the incomparable author and playwright,  Neil Simon proves that this classic, no matter how many times you see it, can be enjoyable and a new experience every time.

This production directed byCody Estle does not disappoint. Cody’s direction is fabulous and worked well with the conversion of the Raven’s fabulous stage to a row house or bungalow. Set Designer/ Scenic Artist, Amanda Rozmiarek brought the audience to that place and time where the audience is a part of the Jerome home. Actually, it looked like my grandmother’s Northwest side bungalow here in Chicago, and brought me back to many happy memories of her home.  I am certain that the same feeling was felt by the older population in the audience.

This wonderful comedy focuses on the story that is based on Neil Simon’s memoires of growing up in Brooklyn in the years just before WWII.  The story is told by teenager Eugene Jerome.  Eugene who is about 15 years old searches for his identity through puberty, and his sexual awakening. Like any normal teenager, goes through the growth spurts with the assistance of his older brother, Stanley. At the same time, Eugene attempts to deal with his family who is a handful. There is his mother Kate who works like a dog and is the glue that tries to holds the family together. There is his father, Jack who is the voice of reason and exhaustingly works two jobs to support an extended family consisting of his widowed sister in law, Blanche and her daughters Nora and Laurie. Eugene continues to bring the audience on this delightful journey experiencing the ups and downs of living with the difficulties of pre WWII. There was the depression, where the entire family struggles to make ends meet, with everyone in the family chipping in to help. There was also the charitability of the family.  The family of four struggles to support themselves, yet their home is opened to Kate’s widowed sister Blanch and her family.  Blanche’s husband Dave died six years ago at 36, leaving her helpless with two daughters to struggle on their own.  Knowing what went on in my mother’s family during that time, this story is very true to life. Many families did not have a lot of money, but always made room for those who were less fortunate. They always managed and were happy living together most of the time. However, adding members to a family during this time was stressful and difficult. Although, that is what family loyalty is all about.  I believe accuracy and truthfulness are a few of the many enjoyable factors of Brighton Beach Memoirs that makes it so realistic and charming.

The cast of Brighton Beach Memoirs features a young, talented Charlie Bazzell, who plays Eugene. I believe that Charlie was very accurately cast by Cody Estle, and his Assistant Director Vincent Mraz.  Charlie told the story as a 15 year old teen who accurately illustrates Eugene’s personality through his performance. Charlie’s performance was very funny, yet you were able to feel his frustrations with puberty, and his care for his family. Eugene was the child in the family who was given the most to do, yet was ignored because of all of the other family dynamics. Charlie was a perfect Eugene, and made his performance delightful and believable. JoAnn   Montemurro who plays the mother, Kate; and Ron Quade who plays her husband Jack; were very convincing as the heads of the Jerome family. Both JoAnne and Ron’s performances showed the love for the family, and how important it was to work together to make things work when circumstances were difficult.  Jo Ann was the ideal Jewish mother taking the entire world on her shoulders, trying not to complain, but is frustrated with all of the stress that is involved. Ron who played the father was the voice of reason. Even though, the family was afraid to approach him with problems, they looked to his advice and wisdom to make things better.

Ron’s easy going, yet directive performance was believable and was the ideal father for this production. Sam Hubbard who played Eugene’s brother Stanley was the older brother who had to work to help support the family, forgoing college because of the father’s difficulty in making ends meet for the extended family. Sam’s performance showed Stanley’s frustration through some of his bad choices. Sam’s charcter, Stanley was also the perfect brother showing Eugene the ropes of telling him the facts of life in his experiences with puberty. Liz Fletcher, who was Kate’s sister Blanche, poignantly portrayed the grief stricken woman who did not know how to cope or parent her daughters after her husband’s sudden death. Liz through her performance showed Blanche’s vulnerability and co-dependency which later evolved to her independence.  Blanche’s  daughters Sophia Menendian who was Nora,  who was 16 and had crushed dreams of auditioning for a Broadway show; and Elizabeth Stenholt who was the younger daughter Nora who had a heart flutter and milked her illness to get out of chores and pulling her weight.

Brighton Beach Memoirs brings you back to much simpler times. Even though, it is a generation before my time, it is refreshing to relive my mother’s stories, in witnessing a true family with real problems. They have an extreme love for each other to hold them together, through even the most difficult circumstances. Brighton Beach Memoirs is truly delightful and guaranteed to make you laugh and cry and relive all of those great family times and stories. The Raven Theater is truly a wonderful Edgewater venue and the perfect theater to see this show. Brighton Beach Memoirs should not be missed, and is Highly recommended.

 

Brighton Beach Memoirs is currently appearing at the Raven Theater 6157 North Clark Street Chicago, Il 60660, 773-338-2177 ([email protected]).  Performances are Thursdays – Saturdays at 7:30pm, and Sundays at 3:00pm through June 29, 2013. For calendar information visit www.theatreinchicago.com