BENNINGTON, Vt. — The setting for "Brighton Beach Memoirs," the first of the plays in Neil Simon's semi-autobiographical "B" trilogy — "Brighton Beach Memoirs," "Biloxi Blues" and "Broadway Bound" — is set in the Brighton-Beach-section-of-Brooklyn home of the Jerome family — Jack, who is a clothes cutter in a factory that makes raincoats and earns extra money delivering party favors; his wife, Kate; their two sons, Stanley, who works in a department store, and his 15-year-old younger brother Eugene, the play's journal-keeping narrator (Simon's alter ego), who is obsessed with the New York Yankees, becoming a writer, and seeing his 16-year-old cousin Nora in any stage of undress.
"If I had my choice between a tryout with the Yankees and actually seeing [Nora's] bare breasts for two and a half seconds, I would have some serious thinking to do," D.J. Gleason's thoroughly ingratiating Eugene says in Oldcastle Theatre Company's richly entertaining and affecting production, which wraps up its run this weekend.
This is Oldcastle's second foray into Simon's trilogy. Two seasons ago, Oldcastle's producing artistic director Eric Peterson helmed a memorably haunting production of "Broadway Bound," the darkest and most sobering of the three plays.
For "Brighton Beach Memoirs," Peterson has turned the directing duties over to Oldcastle veteran, actor-director Nathan Stith. Two of the "Broadway Bound" cast are back — Sarah Corey, reprising the role of Kate, and Anthony J. Ingargiola, who played the 27-year-old Eugene and returns here as Stanley.
"Brighton Beach Memoirs" unfolds over one week in September 1937. It is near the end of the Depression. Hitler is on the march in Europe and the Jerome family is doing the best it knows to survive and make a life. Jack has taken into his home his sister-in-law, Blanche (Sophia Garder), and her two daughters — the aforementioned 16-year-old Nora (Kate Kenney), and her shy, bookish sister, Laurie (Kristen Herink). They have been living with the Jeromes ever since the death of Blanche's husband, Dave, 3 years earlier. He died leaving nothing for his wife and children, not even insurance.
The long-suffering, asthmatic Blanche (an affecting Garder) does the best she can by taking in some sewing to contribute while Jack works two jobs and is fighting his own approaching depression. Stanley holds down a job as a clerk in a leading department store.
Meanwhile, the impressionable Nora sees stars and a lot of money in her eyes when she decides to audition for the dancing chorus of a Broadway musical called "Abracadabra." She is all eager and filled with romantic, adolescent fantasies of the path to fame that lies ahead, not to mention the weekly salary she would be bringing home now as a chorine. Her mother's pragmatic side feels Nora would be much better served by completing her education. The #MeToo movement didn't exist when "Brighton Beach Memoirs" opened on Broadway in March 1983 but it stalks the shadows of Stith's production, reflected, oh, so subtly in Ganias' Jack's nuanced response to Nora's plan and her demeanor coming home from rehearsals with the show's older male choreographer-director-producer. The unease and chill in Oldcastle's theater is palpable.
Stanley (a reassuringly credible Ingargiola) runs into trouble at work, twice, both times leading to meaningful life lessons. He tries his best to be a responsible older brother to the hard-not-to-love-despite-his-youthful-passions Eugene — sometimes with compassion and understanding; sometimes with understandable impatience.
There is a much sunnier disposition around "Brighton Beach Memoirs" than the later "Broadway Bound." Simon adroitly lays down small threads here that are picked up and developed in "Broadway Bound." ("Biloxi Blues" handles Eugene's coming of age and fulfillment of his hormonal urges in "Biloxi Blues," which tracks his experiences in Army training camp).
Mounted on a set by Richard Howe that takes its cues from Carl Sprague's evocative setting for "Broadway Bound," Stith's production follows a welcoming course as it tracks the overriding arc in the journey of a family whose members are each struggling with circumstances that are not entirely of their pwn making; doing their best to provide materially and emotionally not only for themselves but for each other.
Stith and his players keep the sentiment this side of mawkish in a beautifully thought out, expertly rendered production of a play that defines, as well as any play I can think of, the value of family.