People’s Light & Theatre Company delivers the laughs and the growing pains in its production of BILOXI BLUES, Neil Simon’s Tony Award–winning semi-autobiographical comedy. The second memory play in his “Eugene Trilogy” (Brighton Beach Memoirs preceded it in 1983, and Broadway Bound followed in 1986), the androcentric coming-of-age story celebrates the 30th anniversary of its Broadway debut this year. Set in 1943, it offers an eye-opening portrait of a bygone era in U.S. history recounted through the observations and experiences of Simon’s thinly fictionalized double, Eugene Morris Jerome—a 20-year-old budding writer recruited into the U.S. Army during World War II.
A naïve Jewish kid from Brooklyn who has never been away from home, Eugene (the likeable James Michael Lambert) is sent for basic training to a segregated boot camp in Biloxi, Mississippi, where he learns important lessons about soldiering and even more important ones about life. Thrust into close quarters with an American cross-section of fellow recruits (prompting him to note: “It was my fourth day in the Army, and I hated everybody so far!”), the narrator vividly recalls his rites of passage, detailing all the crude jokes, ignorant behavior, bigoted insults, and bodily functions that defined his first encounters with anti-Semitism, homophobia, sex, and young love in pre-Civil-Rights, pre-Gay-Rights, and pre-Women’s-Rights America.
In addition to the social issues and personal challenges he faces with insight and humor, Eugene is also forced to confront unyielding authority, in the form of the sadistic whiskey-swigging Sgt. Merwin J. Toomey (Pete Pryor, once again affirming his comic genius and impeccable timing). Though the tyrannical drill instructor delights in bullying the motley assortment of privates under his hard-nosed command, they eventually come to realize that he also takes pride in turning unprepared boys into battle-ready men—most notably in his power struggle with the intelligent, strong-willed, and principled Arnold Epstein (portrayed with a perfect mix of sensitivity, conviction, and disdain by Jordan Geiger), who serves as Eugene’s conscience.
Rounding out the convincing ensemble of distinctive recruits are Jon Mulhearn as the over-sexed muscular brute Joseph Wykowski, Joseph Michael O’Brien as his quick tough-talking buddy Roy Selridge, Ben Harter-Murphy as the indecisive Don Carney (an aspiring crooner who annoys the others with his singing), and Luke Brahdt as the quiet and innocuous James Hennesey. Equally well-cast are the pivotal women in Eugene’s transition to adulthood: Rowena (Julianna Zinkel), the enterprising prostitute to whom he loses his virginity; and Daisy Hannigan (Clare Mahoney), the pretty, pure, and smart Catholic-school student to whom he loses his heart.
Samantha Bellomo’s inventive direction and choreography coordinate the playwright’s keen reflections and wisecracking wit with contemporary “Big Band” songs and military drills that bring the era to life (with expert sound by Michael Kiley), and her talented cast executes the cadences, comedy, and conflicts with precision. James F. Pyne Jr.’s set design easily transitions from wooden barracks and bunk beds into a train car, a brothel, and a USO dance hall, as the actors effect the scene changes as marching soldiers. Marla J. Jurglanis costumes the characters in attire appropriate to their stations and occupations, and Paul Hackenmueller’s lighting brings comedic focus to Eugene’s provocative asides and double takes, as he steps out of the story on occasion to address the audience directly with his sharp quips and reactions.
Though entertaining as a comedy, BILOXI BLUES contains an important message about a time in which young American men were in training to fight “the good war” abroad, while many struggles against injustice remained to be fought on the home front. Bellomo and her cast get both the humor and the irony. [Leonard C. Haas Stage, 39 Conestoga Rd., Malvern, PA] April 29-May 24; www.peopleslight.org.