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BWW Reviews: Portland Stage Presents Probing and Poignant BRIGHTON BEACH MEMOIRS

Portland Stage opened its 2014-2015 season with a probing and poignant production of Neil Simon's Brighton Beach Memoirs, the first of Simon's so-called "Eugene Trilogy." The 1983 autobiographical reminiscence tells the story of a Jewish boy growing up in a colorful, often dysfunctional extended family in Brooklyn during the Depression. That Simon's play retains so much of its original impact is a tribute to his gifts as a playwright, especially his ability to mingle humor and pain in the crucible of memory.

Portland Stage has mounted an attractive, atmospheric production which owes no small measure of its appeal to Brittany Vasta's sprawling, multi-tiered set, comprised of small eclectically cluttered cubbies evoking the straitened family circumstances. Director Samuel Buggeln makes imaginative use of the space as he draws taut, expressive performances from each of the seven actors, who are all virtually note perfect in capturing the Brooklyn accents.

Matt Mundy shines as Eugene, striking just the right balance between theatricality and adolescent vulnerability. Marek Pavlovski makes a touching foil as his older brother Stanley, trapped by poverty and filial devotion - all the shattered aspirations of his life simmer in his lithe, athletic stage presence. Mary Jo Mecca plays the Kate as the quintessential Jewish mother, who dispenses guilt and love in equal measure. As her widowed sister Blanche, Abigail Killeen manages a moving transformation from timid dependency to heart-wrenching independence. Julia Knitel as a rebellious Nora, Dora Chaison-Lapine as the "sickly" Laurie, and Corey Gagne as the long-suffering yet wise patriarch Jack round out the excellent ensemble.

Julie McMurray supplies authentic period costumes, while lighting designer Dans Maree Sheehan bathes the stage in a sepia glow of memory. The lighting, which is designed to aid the flow of the action and to isolate the many moments of intimate exchange between characters, for the most part succeeds, though some cross-fades are heavy handed and jarring. Christ Fitze's sound design adds a thirties musical context to the overall ambiance.

Portland Stage's production of Brighton Beach Memoirs reminds today's audiences of the lasting appeal of Neil Simon as a dramatist. Mellow, heartwarming, and funny, in Brighton Beach Memoirs Simon uses his own brand of bittersweet comedy to explore some of the same themes which his great predecessor Arthur Miller probed in his tragedy, Death of a Salesman. After more than thirty years, the voice which emerges from this play still has a profound and touching resonance.

Brighton Beach Memoirs runs September 23 -October 19, 2014 at Portland Stage Company, 25A Forest Avenue, Portland, ME 207-774-0465

Photos courtesy of Portland Stage Company

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From This Author Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold