The spirit of 1940s America comes to the Walnut Street Theater this month as Neil Simon’s “Biloxi Blues” takes to the stage.
Simon’s play, loosely based on his own experiences in the army as a young man, is part two of a trilogy. The first play, “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” introduces the character of Eugene Morris Jerome and tells the story of his Brooklyn upbringing, from quirky childhood to awkward adolescence. His story continues in “Biloxi Blues” as he ventures away from home and approaches manhood.
Eugene is not cut out for life in the army. He’s a Jewish boy from Brooklyn whose dream is to become a writer and meet the girl of his dreams, not necessarily in that order. But it is in this most unlikely of places, a Biloxi, Miss. boot camp, where he learns about life and love.
Eugene, who is naturally analytical, documents every detail of his service in his journal. He describes the idiosyncrasies of each of the men in his company. The audience is introduced to the ensemble of characters through the eyes, or rather thoughts, of Eugene.
First, there is Don Carney, the corpulent, absent-minded but lovable songbird. Roy Selridge, the wise-cracking but insecure goof is introduced next, followed by Joseph Wykowski, an ironic character that straddles the line between bully and buddy.
Jeffery Hennessey, the only character who seems to have a sense of compassion – but is later disciplined for his indiscretions – enters the picture next, followed by Arnold Epstein, whom Eugene respects tremendously despite his feeble physique.
Together, these men face verbal abuse from their callous leader, Sergeant Toomey, whom they learn to fear.
They share intimate discussions and face the challenges of remaining loyal to friends versus the army.
Eugene is thrust into manhood when the gang goes to visit Rowena, the neighborhood prostitute. He loses his virginity in a scene that, shall we say, ends rather abruptly.
In the end, with lessons learned and friends made, Eugene falls for his dream girl, Daisy Hannigan. Unfortunately, he is to be shipped off to face combat the next week.
Eugene’s tale comes to a close with the story of each man’s life in the years since they left the Biloxi boot camp. This final scene is filled with humor and emotion as the audience discovers what became of the now-loved characters.
The Walnut Street Theater has done justice to Simon’s wonderful work. Under the direction of Frank Ferrante, who was also acclaimed for his direction of the Walnut’s production of “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” the talented cast evokes laughter and emotion from the audience with a commendable performance.
Jesse Bernstein’s Eugene lives up to Mathew Broderick’s portrayal in the 1988 film version. Steven Klein also stands out as Arnold Epstein, performing some intensely emotional scenes. Jeffery Coon, T.J. Sokso, Aaron Cromie and Matt Pfeiffer all deliver admirable portrayals of the boot camp boys.
However, there were disappointing performances. Sergeant Toomey, Rowena the prostitute and Eugene’s dream girl, Daisy, were lacking. While Josh Clark’s interpretation of Toomey was humorous and viable, it lacked the oomph that previous actors have brought to the part.
Madi Distefano (Rowena) and Elizabeth Webster also gave shaky performances, lowering the quality of their scenes.
Overall, the show was a tremendous success. It brings new life to the piece, resonating with the wit and sentiment of Simon’s writing.
“Biloxi Blues” is running through Feb. 29 at the Walnut Street Theater. For ticket information, call (215) 574-3550.
Milli Protheroe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org