‘Brighton Beach Memoirs’

HOUGHTON – The year is 1937 and 15-year-old Eugene Jerome is in the midst of a sexual awakening with a lot of his attention drifting toward his cousin Nora. In addition, Eugene must deal with the struggles he and his family face during the Great Depression.

So goes the plot of Neil Simon’s “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” which opens tonight at Michigan Technological University’s McArdle Theatre.

Tech student Toby Mahan plays Eugene, who said he was unfamiliar with the role and the play prior to auditioning for it, but he had been in a Neil Simon play before, “Rumors.”

“I’ve neve read ‘Brighton Beach Memoirs’ before this, Mahan said.

But Mahan does consider himself to be a fan of Simon’s stuff.

“I like his quick wit,” he said.

Mahan said he has been enjoying being in the play, but at times it can be difficult when balancing a burgeoning engineer’s course load.

“It’s a little tough, but it will be fun in the end,” Mahan said.

Speaking about Eugene, Mahan said his discovery of the opposite sex is an exciting thing for Eugene, who delivers little asides to the audience to clue them in on what and how he’s thinking.

“At those times he feels like a slightly older man,” Mahan said. “It’s a little too wise for a 15-year-old.”

There is also a little backstory that director Trish Helsel has given to the actors to make their performances that much more believeable.

“If you watch carefully enough, you realize they’re not three guys just thrown into a house together,” Mahan said. “They’re a family.”

Matt Coel plays Stanley, the older brother of Eugene.

Coel describes the relationship between Stanley and Eugene as being typical of a brotherly dynamic, which involves fighting and talking about girls.

“For the most part, it’s not a nice relationship, but there’s still a ton of love there.”

Stanley also helps bring in money for the family.

“I”m one of the two main workers in the family,” Coel said. “I’ve got my Pop and I’ve got myself.”

Stanley also gets into trouble occasionally, but he tries to do what he thinks is the right thing.

“It doesn’t always turn out as it should, but I always have my Pop to rely on,” Coel said. “He always understands where I’m coming from.”

Playing the patriarch of the family is Mark Wilcox, who said one of the interesting things about the child-parent relationship in those days is that parents assumed their children knew how they felt.

“Those scenes in the play where those words actually get said are very poignant,” Wilcox said.

In addition to realistically portraying a family, the cast of “Brighton Beach Memoirs” also had to maintain a Brooklyn accent.

“Sometimes (in theater) you have one or two people who nail it, one or two people who don’t and one or two people who sound like something else,” Wilcox said. “The cast here has been very consistent.”

For Mahan, who is originally from upstate New York, had the “nasally” aspect of the accent down, but had to work on perfecting it.

“It’s very difficult to do a character, not a caricature,” Mahan said. “That nice in-between that isn’t melodrama, it’s just an addition to a real play.”

Director Trish Helsel is the one putting all the pieces of the play together and said directing “Brighton Beach Memoirs” is something she had wanted to do for quite some time.

“I wanted to direct it because it’s Neil Simon’s first play where he makes a huge breakthrough and it speaks to me,” Helsel said. “Every individual in the (play) is going through something and they’re surrounded by the Great Depression.”

Helsel thinks one of the themes that will resonate with audiences is family, although the play does deal with some mature subjects.

“They talk about puberty and masturbation, but all in this wonderful naive 1930s way,” Helsel said. “In terms of what an audience will take away from it is perseverance in whatever comes your way. It’s not always easy, but everybody makes it through together.”

The set of the show itself could almost be considered another character, as it is elaborate in its design of a house shared by seven people.

Helsel said building this set was one of the more challenging aspects of creating a show that looked realistic.

“That’s challenging – having to recreate something for the audience that looks real.”

Aside from that challenge, Helsel found working with a small cast to be a rewarding experience.

“(The actors) are putting it out there for you,” Helsel said.

“Brighton Beach Memoirs” opens tonight and runs Friday and Saturday, with additional performances on Oct. 24, 25 and 26.