'blue' Is A Very Pleasant Surprise

If I am not familiar with a play, I usually go into the theater remembering a phrase standard with an old first-nighter friend: “Maybe we’ll be pleasantly surprised.”

Sometimes we are and sometimes not. With the current South Bend Civic Theatre production of “blue,” a play by Charles Randolph-Wright with music by Nona Hendryx and lyrics by the author and composer, it was definitely the former.

Not that the scenario has not been played out frequently on stage. Dysfunctional families have been a standard with writers from the ancient Greeks to the present day. The first line of Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” sets the scene for the tragedy to follow: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

 Not that “blue” is a tragedy. In fact, under the hand of guest director Ron OJ Parson, it contains a fair number of comic figures and situations, with a denoument that, if not completely expected, still supplies a surprising if soap opera-ish twist.

 The setting is Kent, a small community in South Carolina. The characters, each of whom has his/her own set of secrets, are members of the Clark family, plus one initial outsider and one very real musical memory.

 The mother, Peggy (Natalie Davis Mller), is an elegant former model who moves from one project to another while ruling her quiet husband Samuel Jr. (Paul Bertha) and her two sons, Samuel III (Shaylon Wright) and young Reuben (double cast and played easily on opening night by Ian Coates and by Gilbert Michel as the adult Reuben), with an iron hand in her decidedly velvet gloves. The family is wealthy thanks to their ownership of the flourishing (and only) black funeral home in town. It provides the upper middle class lifestyle so important to Peggy. Her pretense of “elegance” is underscored by her Friday night dinners, culinary extravaganzas which she orders, transfers to her own dishes and swears she has cooked them herself.

blue  south bend civic theatre  south bend IN The barb under her mink is mother-in-law Tillie Clark (Diane Gammage), who delights in skewering the matron’s pretentions. Peggy also objects to son Sam’s current significant other, LaTonya Dinkins (Laurisa LeSure), whose dress and manner mark her from the down side of Peggy’s social register. Her antagonism evaporates quickly, however, when she discovers LaTonya is an intense fan of Blue Williams (Ben Little), a singer whose vocals are a constant part of Peggy’s life. LaTonya instantly becomes a project and is welcomed to the family.

 There is no timeline for intermission but between Acts 1 and 2, things have obviously changed and it is at least 10 years later. Sam’s Afro has been cut to an acceptable length and Reuben, who spent his youth practicing the trumpet to please his mother, returns home in blue jeans with dredlocks which he refuses to cut, even when Peggy’s longtime project, her family on the cover of Ebony magazine, is about to be realized.

 The final scenes of the 2 ½ hour show are rife with confrontations, parents to children and siblings to each other, and a confession that explains many things too easily.

 The cast is solid, with a silver-coiffed Gammage the primary scene-stealer, refusing to be intimidated by her controlling daughter-in-law and delivering barbs soto voce with hilarious accuracy. The trim and vocally smooth Little, whose acappella vocals ala Barry White and slow motion movements are consistently right on, is never intrusive but accentuates the underlying emotions that swirl beneath the Carters’ public façade. Bertha creates a quietly strong persona who sees his family’s flaws and deals with them for the good of all. Coates is a delight as the wise-beyond-his-years youngster.

 The set design by Jacee Rohick provides the perfect background for the family, with the stage crew deserving applause for its swift and complete change of the interior during the one brief intermission. The unfortunate acoustics in the mainstage auditorium still prove a stumbling block for the actors. Dalogue is lost to whichever side of the house they turn away from.

 “blue” will be presented through February 5 in the Wilson Mainstage Auditorium in the theater at 403 N. Main St. Times and tickets prices vary. For information and reservations, call 234-1112 or visit www.sbct.org

Simon At Home In 'Brighton Beach'

For more than a half century, playwright Neil Simon has made a successful career of hitting the funnybones of audiences around the world.

One of his best plays, which combines the rapid one-liners for which he became famous via “The Odd Couple,” Come Blow Your Horn” and “Barefoot in The Park,” is on stage through Sunday in the Bristol Opera House.

The Elkhart Civic Theatre production of “Brighton Beach Memoirs” not only has the acerbic wit of the master but is genuinely touching and hits home with anyone who has ever been part of a family. The first play in a series unofficially known as the “Eugene Trilogy,” “Brighton Beach Memoirs” is semi-autobiographical and, with “Biloxi Blues” and “Broadway Bound,” charts the life of Eugene Morris Jerome from angst-filled puberty to early experiences in the wild world of comedy.

From the minute the lights go up on young Eugene imaging himself as the star pitcher for his beloved New York Yankees (and giving his Aunt Blanche a headache by his bouncing fast ball) you can believe the young boy who declares he is blamed for everything that goes wrong — even the impending war in Europe. Eugene’s cryptic asides echo the thoughts of anyone who sees himself as the family scapegoat, no matter the circumstances and, in his quest to see a naked woman, discovers that “lust and guilt are closely related.”

Brighton Beach Memoirs Elkhart Civic Theatre Bristol INEugene is in the hands of an excellent young actor, Memorial High School junior Daniel Daher, who brings the teenager to agonizingly hilarious life as he stumbles through the bewildering maze of puberty and family (with the infallible (?) guidance of his older brother Stanley, played by Brock Butler with just the right blend of elder sibling arrogance and still-young uncertainty). In the Jerome household, the titular head is father Jack (an appropriately weary Dave Dufour), a garment cutter whose supplementary job as a salesman of novelties has just disappeared, but — as in the majority of families — it is mother Kate (Melissa Domiano) who steers the ship.

Domiano’s characterization makes a solid connection, especially with mothers who struggle to keep the family together while keeping often conflicting emotions under wraps. Kate is complex and Domiano delivers the many facets of her personality in an empathetic package.

Kate’s widowed sister Blanche Norton and Blanche’s daughters Laurie and Nora are part of the extended Jerome family. As portrayed by Valerie Ong, Molly Hill and Lydia Coppedge, respectively, they create a trio of familial guests who deal in varying degrees with the gratitude and resentment their situation engenders, both in themselves and their relatives/hosts.

The highs and lows in the Jerome household in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, during a week in September 1937 are a microcosm of events that could take place in any family. In the hands of Neil Simon and the excellent ECT cast, they are hilariously moving and definitely believable.

Director John Hutchings and assistant director Carl Wiesinger develop the nuances of family relationships — sibling to sibling and parent to child — and get an admirable degree of realism from each cast member. It certainly doesn’t hurt that their “dramedy” is played out on another of artistic director John Shoup’s ultra livable sets. The attention to detail (a very important word in Shoup’s theatrical vocabulary) in every corner of the Jerome house is amazing and puts a living/dining room, two upstairs bedrooms, a porch and a bathroom on the small opera house stage with seeming ease. It’s the little things that make a difference.

“BRIGHTON BEACH MEMOIRS” plays at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday in the Bristol Opera House on Ind. 120 in Bristol. Running time: 2 ½ hours including intermission. For tickets: 848-4116 between 1 and 5:30 p.m. weekdays.