Many of playwright Neil Simon’s award-winning plays were autobiographical in nature. The acclaimed 1983 hit “Brighton Beach Memoirs” was no exception. In the case of the upcoming Evergreen Players production, the show is semi-autobiographical not only for the playwright but for the director as well.
Director Tony Catanese was born in Brooklyn just 15 minutes from Brighton Beach and Coney Island, two locations in which the show takes place. Although Catanese grew up more than a decade after “Brighton Beach Memoirs” takes place, not much changed in the area’s culture, geography and its strong tradition of family, during that time.
“The show is about a big Jewish family, and I was raised in a big Italian family,” says Catanese. “There are so many similarities between Brooklyn Italians and Brooklyn Jews at the time. I felt a close connection to the show because I saw bits of my own family in the script.
“I was also lucky enough see the original show when it debuted in New York. One of my students was a stand-by for Matthew Broderick, who played the main character of Eugene. I got to see my student perform the part a couple of times.”
The show’s main draw for Catanese was the strong sense of family. Besides being a side-splitting comedy, the show speaks to families of all nationalities and religions. It transcends its Depression-era setting and brings to life the ups and downs of a close-knit family.
Catanese spent rehearsal time exploring this idea of family with his cast of seven actors. The young cast has four newcomers to the Evergreen Players’ stage. The title character of Eugene is played by 11-year-old Jackson Garske.
“Jackson is an incredible kid. He’s a little younger than the original character of Eugene, but he’s stepped into the role and is really making it his own,” says Catanese.
Eugene spends time with his older brother Stanley (played by Joe LaFollette) and his two cousins Laurie (played by Arianna Sutton) and Nora (Jacqueline Archdeacon).
“It’s fun to work with such a young cast. I teach drama to middle school students at Graland Country Day in Denver. This show gives me the chance to continue my work with kids but also work with adults onstage, too,” says Catanese.
The adult parts consist of Eugene’s widowed aunt Blanche (played by Pele Capparo), his overbearing mother Kate (Michele Wright) and his father Jack (Ken Paul). Wright and Paul are veteran participants in the Players’ organizations. Wright recently directed “The Women of Lockerbie” and was awarded Best Director at the 2011 Colorado Community Theater Coalition festival. Paul has appeared in four Players’ productions, most recently “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.”
Using all of Catanese’s theatrical exercises, this cast has become a family in its own right. “We’ve spent time delving into what makes family important to each of the actors,” says Catanese. “These emotions really translate to this show about relationships. Families don’t always get along and often take each other for granted, but at the end of the day ‘Brighton Beach’ captures how important families are to each other.”
Sara Miller, a freelance writer and a resident of Evergreen, lives with her husband, two children and a dog.