By Patrick B. McGuigan
The secretive musings of Eugene Morris Jerome, where he pours out unedited commentary on the humor and horror of life in U.S. Army boot camp in the swamplands of Mississippi, circa spring 1945, form the heart of Neil Simon’s “Biloxi Blues,” in a production entering its last weekend at CityRep Theatre.
The Equity troupe’s partnership with Theatre Oklahoma City University bears abundant fruit in this top-drawer story combining elements of tragedy/drama with Simon’s sharp wit, and occasionally unabashed sentimentality.
Drew Michael Feldman portrays Jerome. While his age (he is a sophomore at OCU) is perfect for the part, his abilities as a performer are impressive for such a young age. His comrades – suffering through varied indignities and inconsistencies in boot camp – include Oscar J. Kincheloe as Roy Selridge, Daryl Bradford as Joseph Wykowxki, Garrett Henderson as Don Carney, Justin McInnis as James Hennesey and Emilio Velasco as Arnold Epstein.
Although absolutely a comedy, Feldman and Epstein endure ethnic and religious bigotry from fellow soldiers, save for Hennesey and Sgt. Merwin J. Toomey (as portrayed by Ben Hall). In Toomey’s case, he’s no bigot at all. No, he hands out misery in equal measure to all, regardless of ethnicity, faith or sexual orientation.
On the dramatic side, Hennesey’s ouster from the military long before the era of “don’t ask, don’t tell” is a sad moment handled with gentleness by Hall’s Sgt. Toomey. Still, the most intense scenes of the show come when cerebral Epstein and a drunk (and rarely undisciplined) Toomey have a middle-of-the-night confrontation that ends well in Simon’s world, but might not have in the real world.
Linda Leonard is Rowena, the sultry “professional” the lads visit in Biloxi when they finally get a break from Toomey’s tyranny. She services the soldiers, and gives the innocent Eugene a free second round. At the other end of femininity, Colleen Marie Daly is Daisy Hannigan, the sweet Catholic school girl who meets Eugene at a USO dance, and becomes his first true love.
As for sentiment, Daly and Feldman that it’s easy to suspend disbelief and revel briefly in an arguably more innocent era, a time of tumult when people drawn to love one another quite literally could not be certain they would ever meet again, play encounters between Daisy and Eugene with such conviction.
As director, Michael Jones, the rock upon which CityRep is built, uses the stage area deftly, particularly in light of the unusually large cast for this show in the tight CitySpace quarters downstairs at Civic Center. Credit for the efficiency of scene changes no doubt is shared with stage manager Steve Emerson.
Jason Foreman’s scenic design is a strong point, and costumes of Lloyd Cracknell were spot-on.
Sound design by Pam Felenstein nicely employs great period music from the late WWII era. The lighting of James Stuhmiller fills the tiny stage arena with light, making nice use of softer tones for Feldman’s touching soliloquies. Ra’chel Lowery’s properties design is unobtrusive and appropriate to the story itself.
“Biloxi Blues” continues through this Sunday. Shows are Friday, March 18 at 8 p.m., then Saturday, March 19 at 4 p.m. and 8 p.m., wrapping up with the closing Sunday matinee at 2 p.m. Tickets are $30 for evenings, and $25 for matinees. Call CityRep at 848-3761; or visit online at www.cityrep.com and www.okcciviccenter.org. “Biloxi Blues” is an evening of good theatre.