As I write in my arts picks for Friday, Oct. 14, in The Bee’s Seven section:
The play is the first in Simon’s “Eugene” trilogy, the playwright’s semi-autobigraphical masterpiece about a boy growing up in working-class Brooklyn. I’ve always thought it was a terrific play.
I caught up with the co-directors via email to talk more about the show.
Q: First off, could each one introduce yourself? Include a little about your theater background and what you’ve done at the Selma Arts Center.
ADAM: My name is Adam Chavez, I’m a Selma native who has been involved in local theater since my childhood. However, this is my first time directing. In the last few years I have been in several shows including: “The Sound of Music,” “An Adult Evening of Shel Silverstein Part 1 and 2,” “Into the Woods,” “Twelve Angry Men” and, most recently, I played Donkey in “Shrek the Musical.”
MIKE: I’m Mike Derr and I have been a part of the Selma Arts Council for over 15 years. In that time I’ve directed a number of productions for the community, including “Oliver,” “The King and I,” “Best Christmas Pageant Ever,” and now “Brighton Beach Memoirs.” I have built sets for at least a dozen other shows and have played bass for musical productions and concerts in Selma and throughout the South Valley.
Q: Why co-directors?
MIKE: This is a show I’ve been looking to bring to Selma for quite some time now. The difficulty in doing community theater is often the time constraints created by having full-time work outside of the theatre. Having a skilled co-director is what made a quality show possible.
ADAM: Mike and I also bring different attributes to the table when it comes to making a show. Mike has an open mind as a set designer and brings his experiences to the production, and I have a good approach with blocking and coaching the actors. Together we have great communication and have been able to even out the work load. We both cared about this show and this story, and so it made sense to come together in order to bring the best version of it possible.
Q: “Brighton Beach Memoirs” is the first in a trilogy by Neil Simon. Tell us a little about the trilogy.
MIKE: The trilogy starts with “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” which tells the story of Eugene M. Jerome growing up with all the problems and awkwardness that teenagers experience. This award-winning play develops so beautifully that the author moves on to the next stages of the characters’ loves in the final two scripts. In “Biloxi Blues” Eugene, our protagonist, is in basic training before the start of World War II. In the final play, “Broadway Bound,” Eugene is working as an aspiring comedy writer on Broadway. All three are great examples of Simon’s ability to balance comedy with a serious subject matter.
Q: The play is a departure from Simon’s earlier, frothier comedies. What are your thoughts on that?
ADAM: This show has more than just the comedy aspect, it has a terrific sense of drama that really develops in these characters throughout the show. Simon does a great at job at synchronizing the comedy with the overall serious tone this show has at times. It is something that anyone in the audience can relate to because it deals with family and the relationships within them; that chaos and love can all happen under one roof.
MIKE: Mr. Simon doesn’t get very far from his comedic background! Almost every interaction in the play includes a chuckle and a smile.
Q: Give us a synopsis of the play.
ADAM: “Brighton Beach Memoirs” is a story written through the mind of our storyteller, Eugene M Jerome. It is set in the late 1930’s during the Great Depression and just prior to World War II. The story is about a Jewish family of seven who all live under one roof and are struggling financially to keep food on the table. The show features Eugene, a 15 year-old boy who is writing his memoirs. They include dreams of playing for the New York Yankees and seeing a pretty girl naked, while also discussing his family and their relationships. We get to know his hardworking father, Jack, his strict but loving mother, Kate, as well as his oldest brother, Stan. We also learn about his widowed Aunt Blanche and her two daughters, Laurie and Nora, who have come to stay with them after his Uncle Dave has passed away. The story is full of humor, tension, and heartache as we witness the obstacles this family has to deal with. Whether it’s war or an obsession with a cousin, the show keeps the audience engaged until the end.
Q: Fresno City College just produced “Waiting for Lefty,” which was also set in the 1930s. What are some distinctive aspects of this era that you want to capture in this production?
ADAM: I found it very important to distinctly capture the era of this show because of what was going on in the world at the time of when this story was set. The financial instability and dependency on family was very relevant during this era and it is emphasized in this script. I found it most important to capture this era through wardrobe and technology at the time. Whether it be our perfectly dated radio and sewing machine or the type of clothing the characters wear in and out of the house, this was all carefully paid attention to. We also wanted to make sure a sense of the era came through Simon’s writing and part of that meant making sure his references were reflected appropriately in acting choices and set dressing.
MIKE: Because World War II involved some of the people in my life, I find the lead up to the war an important story to tell. This time, following the heels of the depression, was one that included not only a desire for work, but emphasized the importance of everyone pulling their own weight. Family, values, work ethic, relationships, faith, all of these things were very important during this time period and particularly in this family.
Q: The show is considered semi-autobiographical. Can you give a couple of examples of how Simon fictionalized his life?
ADAM: The show has a lot of similarities to his early life like growing up in a Jewish household during the Great Depression in New York with an older brother. however his brother in the show was closer in age. However, there were several things that were fictional or altered like: the abusive relationship with his parents is not presented in the show and his aunt and cousins never really lived with him.
Q: Tell us about your Eugene and Stanley. Why is their relationship so interesting?
MIKE: They are typical brother separated by three years, but those three years are important! Stanley is a “man of the world,” something we see by his involvement in gambling, women, and work. Because he is something of a resource for Eugene, we hear a lot about the world through Stanley’s eyes. The funny this is that in a lot of instances, younger brother Eugene is smarter than his older brother.
ADAM: The relationship between Eugene and Stan is very interesting. As Eugene says himself, “either I praise the ground he walks on or I wanna kill him.” Eugene is an imaginative boy but sometimes relies on the help from his older brother to explain things to him, puberty being a very specific topic in this show. However, sometimes Eugene’s nagging or Stan’s bullying interferes with their relationship and their fights can get out of hand quite easily. The truth is that they really don’t realize how much they appreciate one another and it will be interesting to see from an audience’s perspective how that relationship evolves.
Q: Are there plans in future Selma seasons to produce the other two plays in the trilogy?
MIKE: When Neil Simon wrote this play, it was not intended to be a trilogy. However, it was so successful that he found himself saying “why not?” We may find ourselves in the same place! If audiences fall in love with the characters and the play, we may end up going to boot camp with Eugene!
Q: Anything else you’d like to say?
ADAM: I’m looking forward to audiences getting to experience this cast on stage. They have done an outstanding job to make this show, along with our production crew. The amount of hard work that has been poured into this production over the last couple months is remarkable. This is definitely a show that anyone can connect with on some level and has so much to offer our audiences.
MIKE: There’s more information and behind-the-scene pictures on our website, where you can also purchase tickets. Check out www.selmaartscenter.com or give us a call at (559) 891-2238.
Brighton Beach Memoirs
- Opens Friday, Oct. 14
- Selma Arts Center, 1935 High St.
- www.selmaartscenter.com, 559-891-2238