Playwright Neil Simon struck gold with his semiautobiographical play “Biloxi Blues,” about his stent in a pre-World War II Biloxi boot camp.
Now, Biloxi’s Center Stage is reviving the winning production just in time for Mississippi’s 200th birthday celebration.
In the World War II era life in the army was tough for everybody, but for Jewish intellectuals, would-be playwrights and closeted gay men, it was especially harsh, and Simon’s play examines those hardships with a great deal of heart.
I feel certain this production would have made the playwright proud.
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Director Chuck White accepts nothing less than perfection on the Biloxi stage, and he has crafted something very close to that in this incarnation of “Biloxi Blues.”
Every scene grabs the audience by the throat or the heartstrings, beginning with the train ride southward where we meet the young men soon to face something worse than the Germans or Japanese — the much-feared Southern drill sergeant, Merwin Toomy (brilliantly portrayed by Keith Pederson).
Pederson’s sergeant barks commands like a gorilla on steroids, forcing the boys to do push-ups until they drop. Anyone thinking actors are not well-rounded will marvel at how well these fellows manage their 50ish push-ups at a time. All the new recruits are cowed by Toomy except Arnold Epstein (magnificently played by Joe Stinson), an intellectual who refuses to be humiliated and degraded by the army, yelling “I will not eat slop!”
His grimacing while Toomy refuses him a pass to the latrine during a gruesome drill is vintage reacting at its best; Stinson doesn’t need to say a word to cue the audience into what is going through his mind.
All this and more is related to the world by fellow soldier Eugene Morris Jerome, a.k.a. Simon as a young man.
Sean Harding is Jerome’s ideal avatar, inhabiting the role as if he had lived it several hundred previous lives before.
Whether lighting a cigarette, trading quips with the other men or explaining why he did so to the audience, Harding is Jerome, and renders one of the most believable performances lately seen on the Biloxi stage. He even pronounces “Bi-lock-see” like a proper Brooklyn-born-and-bred.
But this entire cast makes you believe you’ve gone back in time to a simpler, more barbaric Biloxi that was “Africa hot” sans air conditioning. Heather Dauzat offers a welcome break from all the testosterone as a wise local hooker who educates Jerome in the ways of the world; her measured turn as a lady of the evening is a show-stopping wonder.
Christopher Shutz (James Hennessey), Brecken Neumann (Jospeh Wykowski) and Rebecca Harding (Daisy Hannigan) are three of the many fine actors in the production who give this story the heart it needs to rise above mere comedic fluff.
The set, also designed by White, is a marvel in itself, revolving to produce the barracks, mess hall, hooker’s room, latrine, train cabin and USO dance hall. Costumes by Becky Green are perfect, the military browns and greens looking crisp and sharp down to the men’s skivvies and socks. Sharon Bush’s lighting and Susan Pasternostro’s stage managing proved helpful in mounting this very complicated production from a technical standpoint.
What: Center Stage’s production of the Neil Simon classic is part of Mississippi’s 200th birthday celebration.
What: Biloxi Blues (Center Stage’s production of the Neil Simon classic is part of Mississippi’s 200th birthday celebration)
Where: Center Stage Theatre, 2670 Rue Palafox, Biloxi
When: Sept. 14-16 at 7:30 p.m.; Sept. 20-24 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday Sept. 17 and 24 @ 2:00PM
Starring: Drew Garner (Roy Seldridge); Brecken Neumann (Joseph Wykowski); Peyton Glydewell (Don Carney); Sean Harding (Eugene Morris Jerome); Joe Stinson (Arnold Epstein); Keith Pederso (Sgt. Merwin Toomey); Christopher Schutz (James Hennesey); Heather Dauzat (Rowena); Rebecca Harding (Daisy Hannigan). Director: Chuck White; Costumes Design: Becky Green: Light Design: Sharon Bush; Stage Manager: Susan Pastanostra
Tickets: 228-388-6258; firstname.lastname@example.org