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Great Story, Great Acting, Great Show “Brighton Beach Memoirs” STC Mainstage

The cast of the Sacramento Theatre Company production of ‘Brighton Beach Memoirs.

In the 1980s, even though he had written numerous highly successful plays (“The Odd Couple,” “The Sunshine Boys”), Neil Simon’s career and his own satisfaction with his work was at a low point. By looking back on his own life as source material, Simon was able to go from seriously funny to a funny and serious play. The result was “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” a fictional look at his childhood in the seaside neighborhood of Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, New York.

It is the fall of 1937. The world is in the worst depression ever and on the brink of the World War II. The Jerome family is typical of the many Jewish families that settled in Brighton Beach. They are trying to live as normal a life as possible, even having taken in an aunt who was widowed young and her two daughters. They worry about relatives still in Europe. The youngest boy, Eugene, though, dreams of the New York Yankees, girls and being a writer.

The audience enters the Sacrament Theatre Company Mainstage theater with Jarrod Bodensteiner’s beautiful set already on display. It is a cutaway of a two-story period Brooklyn row house, including the front steps and door. There is Bodensteiner’s usual attention to detail. His previous set for “The Owl and the Pussycat” was in STC’s Pollock Stage, where the audience members can admire his work as they walk across the set to their seats.

The casting for this show is perfect. The resulting performances are a knockout, starting with Craig Piaget in the role of Eugene. A UC Santa Cruz graduate, Piaget has primarily performed in the Bay Area as well as Melbourne, Australia.

Craig Piaget as Eugene

“Brighton Beach Memoirs” is centered around Eugene as the narrator of the play. All the family dynamics are seen through his eyes and interpreted by him in his monologues. To a large degree, the character stands in for Neil Simon. Eugene tells us about things we don’t see directly, as well as about what we are about to see or have just seen. Eugene also throws in a lot of asides during the action.

Piaget is perfectly cast in the role of the “almost 15-year-old” Eugene Morris Jerome. He captures the very charming character perfectly. Whatever mood the character is experiencing at the moment, from elated to upset to the point of crying, Piaget is spot-on in his portrayal. Piaget’s fellow actor, Julie Anchor, stated at the opening-night party that: “He is a great storyteller.”

The role of Eugene is a starmaker. The original 1983 production of “Brighton Beach Memoirs” starred the then-unknown Matthew Broderick. Broderick won a Tony Award for his portrayal of Eugene and went on to play the character two years later in “Biloxi Blues.” Given Craig Piaget’s performance in this production, he is going to have a great acting career.

While Eugene may be the character who stands out the most, Neil Simon is very generous with each of the other characters in “Brighton Beach Memoirs.” All the actors in the play have scenes where they can really display their acting skills.

Jamie Jones portrays Kate Jerome, wife and mother of two teenage sons who has taken in her widowed sister and two teenage nieces. Kate Jerome works hard to keep the blended family functioning smoothly until all the stress and a lifetime of resentment for not being appreciated boil over. Jones succeeds at creating a character who remains very sympathetic while remaining authoritarian, set in her ways and even bigoted at times.

Jones is a veteran actor, well-known on Sacramento stages, most recently in the Cosmopolitan Cabaret production of “Shear Madness.” She is also a member of the B Street Theatre Acting Company and co-director of the B Street Theatre Conservatory along with her husband, Michael Stevenson.

Kate’s widowed sister is portrayed by Julie Anchor. Anchor gives a wonderfully understated performance as Kate. Her Kate moves from someone whose whole life is dependent on others for room and board and for making all her decisions for her to someone who decides what is best for her and her daughters and takes a stand for her choices.

Anchor has performed on many Sacramento and Northern California stages. Later this summer, she will be performing in “A Flea in Her Ear” and directing “Leaving Iowa” at Main Street Theatre Works in Sutter Creek.

Julie Anchor as Blanche, Jamie Jones as Kate

The third adult character is Jack Jerome. Jack is the wise husband, father, uncle and brother-in-law of the Jerome household. He works hard at two jobs to keep a roof over the heads of the extended family and food on the table. After a long workday, he also performs the duties of head of the household as adviser and confidant. In what little spare time is left, Jack keeps up on the ever-darkening world news and news of close family members trying to escape Poland.

Sacramento Theatre Company interim artistic director and director of “Brighton Beach Memoirs” Matt K. Miller portrays Jack Jerome. Miller’s Jack is definitely the solid rock of the Jerome family.

Matt K. Miller as Jack

Miller is a consummate actor, well-known in numerous roles at STC and many other stages in Sacramento. He is also a playwright (“Fits and Parts: My Life in Stages”) and continues to prove himself a good director (“Tuesdays with Morrie,” “The Importance of Being Earnest,” “The Owl and the Pussycat”) with this production.  For much more on Matt Miller and his directing the show in Barry Wisdom’s SacPress article.

With all these powerful actors, the roles of the remaining three children could easily be overshadowed. Not so here.

Eugene’s older brother Stanley is portrayed by Eason Donner. Stanley is 18, graduated from high school and now working to help support the family. Stanley laments that as the older brother he did not have an older sibling to guide him and how lucky Eugene is to have him. With Donner’s portrayal, this feels very real. His Stanley is a great brother to Eugene, letting him in on the secrets of life, if not always accurately. He agonizes about the mistakes he makes and listens to and learns from his father.

Eason Donner as Stanley

The roles of the two nieces are each played by two actors from the STC Young Professionals Conservatory in alternating performances. Again, the high quality of the actors the STC-YPC produces is evident.

The role of 15-year-old Nora is played by Raelyn Torngren alternating with Abbey Williams-Campbell.

Torngren is in her third year at the YPC and has appeared in “Arranged Marriage” and “Cinderella” on the Mainstage and in the youth productions of “The Iliad” and “La Pastorella.”

Fifteen-year-old Abbie Williams-Campbell, in her fourth year at the YPC, performed the role of Nora on opening night Saturday. She has appeared in “A Christmas Carol,” “Cinderella” and “Arranged Marriage” on the STC Mainstage. She has also won vocal competition and performed in the STC January Cabaret production “They Say It’s Wonderful: Broadway’s Best Love Songs.”

Williams-Campbell’s Nora is truly the petulant teen when she doesn’t get to drop out of high school and audition for a Broadway musical. Her Nora is also credible when she learns to support her mother’s difficult decision and to appreciate the sacrifices the rest of the family has made for her.

Laurie, the younger sister, niece and cousin, is portrayed by Rachel Finerman alternating with Lauren Metzinger.

Finerman has appeared as Clara in “The Nutcracker” at The Sacramento Ballet, in the Children’s Chorus at last summer’s Music Circus production of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat,” as well as “Arranged Marriage” at STC. She is an eighth grader at Natomas Charter Performing and fine Arts Academy.

Metzinger performed the role of Laurie on opening night. Laurie has been diagnosed with a heart murmur. She is constantly babied and allowed to lay about and read. Metzinger’s Laurie is quite happy, indeed entitled to do little to help with household chores. She does reluctantly come around when it becomes apparent that everyone needs to pull their weight and that it would indeed be healthy for her to help.

Lauren Metzinger, 12, has also appeared in “Carol” at STC and “Joseph,” “Evita” and “Whistle Down the Wind” at Music Circus. She appeared at the STC Cabaret “Younger Than Springtime” in 2010. Metzinger has appeared multiple times at the ever-popular Graham-A-Rama Cabaret!

Jessica Minnihan has dressed the actors in costumes that nicely set the period.  There are several nice photos on Barry Wisdom’s article on Matt Miller.

Although “Brighton Beach Memoirs” premiered nearly three decades ago and is set in a period nearly three quarters of a century ago, the current production that opened at Sacramento Theatre Company Saturday night is fresh, funny and poignant. It is a great story with great acting. At its heart, it is about what it means to be a family. It shows that families have not really changed that much over the decades. Much of what affected families in the ‘30s – concerns over finances, the impact of strife in the world and how to deal with blended families – is still as big of a concern today. “Brighton Beach Memoirs” shows that we can still find lots of humor and hope in everyday life, no matter the decade. 

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