This article was corrected on Aug. 28, 2014. An explanation follows the story.
Travel back in time to late 1930s Brooklyn and discover what life was like for playwright Neil Simon during the Prince George’s Little Theatre production of “Brighton Beach Memoirs.”
The first of three semi-autobiographical plays Simon wrote, the piece covers the ups and downs of the Jerome family, including the teenaged protagonist based on the playwright himself, Eugene Morris Jerome.
Eugene is 14, with two cousins and an older brother also in their teens. For a play with a relatively small cast, the amount of roles available for teen actors in “Brighton Beach Memoirs” stuck out to director Ken Kienas when he decided to pitch the play to the company.
“I really wanted to put on something for our group that had roles for young people in it,” he said. “It’s hard to find those kinds of plays. There are plays kids do for other kids, there are walk-on parts and musical numbers, but it’s hard to find strong character roles for youths and this is one play that does have that.”
Throughout the play, Eugene has to balance the strife involved in growing up with family obstacles, such as his father’s heart attack and his brother’s gambling habit. As the voice of the writer, Eugene often breaks the fourth wall, engaging the audience in the piece that inspires laughter alongside tears.
Casey Baum, who plays the teenage boy, is no stranger to the issues Eugene is going through; a teenager himself, he has worked in his own thoughts and reactions with his understanding of the character, making for a performance with depth and realism.
This is Baum’s first show off the school stage, and while the schedule is different than he is used to Baum has been able to use the timing to his advantage preparing for his role.
“It was difficult at first to get into the mode of actually doing a show because we were only rehearsing two or three times a week,” Baum said. “I definitely enjoyed it because I got a really long time to discover my character on stage and off. Even when I do other productions with less preparation time, I can still take time to discover who that character is and create someone interesting to watch.”
Eugene faces conflict throughout the play within the family between his brother, cousins, mother and aunt. Through it all, he and his relatives maintain a sense of humor to help them through life’s rough times — a coping mechanism many families use when facing tough situations.
“On the surface he kind of has this whole comical persona, but deep down he’s struggling with the reality of growing up,” Baum said. “I think the play represents that life can have these sides of light and fun but also the duller, more depressing side. He takes all these situations and turns them for the better.”
His mother is played by Nora Zanger, who is no stranger to the play. Her own mother brought her to see the show in 1983, and Simon’s family background is very similar to that of her and her mother when growing up. Zanger’s mother passed away two years ago, and taking on the mother role in the production that meant so much to them both has helped connect her further to the role.
“I’m doing this as much for my pleasure as much as in her honor,” she said. “I think she would have really loved to see this show. She related to it even more so than I did. This shows real Jewish life and struggles but it also shows real people and real situations, and I think this is the kind of show that touches people deeply.”
The cast rehearses and performs together as a family each night, and as such have become close-knit from auditions leading to opening night. The comfort the cast members have with each other shows through their performances, making for a production about a family the audience can believe.
“Everyone involved has given more than 100 percent in every way,” she said. “It’s been such a great experience, it makes my travel from northern Virginia in horrendous traffic tolerable because I know I’m going to something I enjoy.”
“I’ve been tickled with how much all of them have jumped into it,” Kienas added. “You never know exactly what you’re going to get with teenagers, and the group I’ve got, some I think have more experience than older members of the cast and I’m amazed at how quickly they pick up things.”
All in all, “Brighton Beach Memoirs” is a play about the bonds of family and how they can weather any storm. Even if members of the audience didn’t grow up in a Jewish family in Brooklyn in 1937 – or any time, for that matter – aspects of Simon’s adolescence should resonate.
“Neil Simon is really writing a lot about family and how family interacts, and that they’re there for each other,” Kienas said, “and I hope they come away and look at their family and maybe smile a bit about some of the stuff they do and see how they’re all there to see each other through the hard times.”
“I would love for people to look at these characters, and maybe they won’t all be Jewish families, but maybe they can find a parallel to their lives,” Zanger added. “Sometimes difficult things happen, but I hope they see how important it is to stick together and work together as a family.”
Correction: The final performance is 2 p.m. Sept. 13.