Sgt. Merwin J. Toomey (John Haas, left) addresses his boot camp squad in Church Hill Theatre's "Biloxi Blues" - Top Bunk - Robbie Spray & James Rank; Middle bunk - Timothy Daly & Troy Strootman, Bottom Bunk - Anthony Daly & Morgan Jung. Photo by Steve Atkinson
Biloxi Blues, by Neil Simon, is a semi- autobiographical play about young soldiers undergoing basic training during World War II. Directed by Michael Whitehill, it is currently playing at Church Hill Theatre.
Set almost entirely in an Army training camp near Biloxi, Mississippi, the play focuses on six soldiers in one platoon and their hard-nosed drill sergeant. Like other comedies with a military setting, it gains much of its humor by contrasting the raw recruits — a motley crew with different backgrounds and personalities — with the Army’s demand for discipline and adherence to an apparently irrational set of rules.
Originally produced at the Neil Simon Theatre on Broadway in 1985, Biloxi Blues ran for 524 performances. It is the middle piece in Simon’s “Eugene trilogy,” featuring a young Brooklyn Jew whose experiences roughly follow Simon’s own early life. The other two segments are Brighton Beach Memoirs and Broadway Bound. Biloxi Blues won Tony awards for best play, best actor (Barry Miller as Arnold Epstein) and best director (Gene Saks); Miller also won a Drama Desk award. Others in the original production were Matthew Broderick as Eugene, Simon’s self-portrait character, and William Sadler as drill sergeant Toomey.
A 1988 film adaptation, directed by Mike Nichols, brought back Broderick as Eugene and featured Christopher Walken in the role of Sgt. Toomey.
While there is a great deal of broad, often profane comedy, the play also has at its core a serious story about growing up and learning about the world. The narrator, Eugene, has ambitions of being a writer, and he keeps a journal in which he writes his impressions of his fellow recruits and their experiences. Right at the beginning, Eugene says that he has four goals for the near future - to fall in love, to lose his virginity, (not necessarily in that order), to become a writer and to make it out of the army alive. Like much comedy, the play draws its materials from events that may seem far from amusing to those caught up in them, but that with time and experience become funny even to those involved.
At the center of the play is Arnold Epstein, a gentle misfit who draws the wrath of Sgt. Toomey almost from the minute he arrives in camp. Even though he considers Arnold his closest friend in the army, Eugene can do little more than watch as Epstein is assigned endless KP and latrine duty as a result of his failure to meet the sergeant’s standards. Epstein, for his part, continues to assert his humanity, even as other recruits mock him (and Eugene) for being Jewish.
The plot, on the whole, is episodic. We see the recruits’ first reactions to the demands of Army life and learn their backgrounds and quirks. We follow them through confrontations — one soldier in particular, Wykowski, is especially scornful of the two Jews in the squad — though that attitude softens somewhat throughout the play as the six recruits go from being strangers to being a unit, soldiers together. We see the six going to visit a prostitute for their first sexual experience. Eventually, all of them — even the sergeant, who has a plate in his head where he was wounded in battle — gain a degree of humanity and sympathy by the end of the play.
Whitehill has assembled a cast dominated by young actors — — just right, given the age of the characters they are portraying. He said after the opening night performance that the youngest cast member is only 13 while the oldest is in his early 40s, most are in their teens or early twenties. Almost all have some previous theatrical experience, though this is the Church Hill debut for several of them. While there were a few first-night glitches, the performance was, on the whole, up to the high standards local audiences have come to expect. Be sure to read the Director’s Notes in the Play Bill as he gives some interesting information on the production and using memoir as a narrative technique.
Whitehill also noted that he broke in the young cast by having them do push-ups as punishment for arriving late to rehearsals — 15 push-ups for each minute late! It was all good-natured, Whitehill said, with the young actors often running in just on time, pointing at their watches and shouting “I’m here! I’m here!” Not only did it improve promptness, it got the recruits in shape to perform push-ups at the sergeant’s command during the show!
Troy Strootman, who has appeared at the Garfield Center and with Shore Shakespeare, makes his CHT debut as Eugene. He effectively strikes the balance between the character’s youthful naivete and his innate intelligence and insight into his fellow recruits — this is, after all, someone who is going to grow up to become Neil Simon. A good job in an important part.
Robert Spray takes the role of Arnold Epstein, in many ways the focus of the play’s main drama. He brings out the awkward recruit’s genuine distaste for the dehumanizing aspects of military training, and makes his confrontations with the sergeant appropriately comic.
John Haas, a CHT veteran, is well cast as Sgt. Toomey, who turns out to be a more complex and sympathetic character than the stereotypical drill sergeant he appears to be when the soldiers arrive at boot camp. Haas is convincing as the hard-nosed drillmaster, but when the opportunity arises for the character to demonstrate genuine concern for his men, he makes the switch believable – not an easy thing to do!
Daisy Hannigan, Eugene’s love interest, is played by Kendall Davis, a 2o16 Washington College graduate who is appearing in her fourth CHT production. She convincingly projects the sweetness and innocence of the Catholic school girl who meets the soldier at a USO dance, winning him over with her knowledge of the literary world he aches to become part of. A very warm performance, given an extra dimension by Davis’s dancing.
Brothers Anthony and Timothy Daly play Roy Seldridge and Joseph Wykowsky, two of the recruits in the squad. The sons of Jeff Daly, who has many CHT credits in his own right, they give solid performances. Timothy’s character, at first a somewhat dim-witted anti-Semite, comes to recognize that he is part of a team, and all the members need to work together if they are to survive the coming ordeal of wartime. Anthony’s character thinks of himself as the comedian of the bunch, though he’s not as witty as he thinks.
Morgan Jung and Jeffrey Rank fill out the boot camp squad with portrayals of Don Carney and James Hennessy. Carney sings — off key! — in his sleep, to the annoyance of his bunk mates. and Hennesey, who is the oldest recruit and who claims to be part African-American, comes across as slightly more attuned to Army life. Good jobs by both.
Christine Kinlock, who has become a regular in the local theater scene, has a meaty if brief part as Rowena, a prostitute. Again, the character, who might have been a stereotype, turns out to have depths that Kinlock nicely brings out.
Scarlett Chapell appears as another USO hostess, dancing with the soldiers. The character is not in the original script, but Chapell, who is in her first show at CHT, makes good use of the opportunity to create a character without speaking a word. Beautiful dancing in a shadowed background.
Given that the majority of the cast is in uniform for the entire length of the play, the only real chance for costuming flash is in the three women’s outfits — which nicely distinguish the three characters. Both USO girls are wearing distinctive 1940s dress styles. Note that the recruits are all wearing realistic, WWII “dogtags” around their necks.
The sets are quite effective, creating a believable 1940s army camp and surrounding scenes. The main set is a surprisingly realistic two-sided unit with the soldier’s three-tiered bunks on one side and a latrine on the other. The set not only swings around to give two different scenes, it rolls offstage when a less specific scene is needed — for example the open floor of the USO dance. A side portion of the stage is used for a train car, Toomey’s office, and Rowena’s bedroom. While not as spectacular as some of CHT’s past sets, it does an excellent job of creating the atmosphere of the time and place. Kudos to Whitehill and Brian Draper, who designed and built it.
Not surprisingly, given its subject and setting, Biloxi Blues has its share of adult situations and language — and a good number of the characters share the prejudices of the time and express them in the language of the era. Parents might think twice about bringing very young children to the production. But adult audiences, or even teens, will appreciate the larger message of the play — how growing up involves surviving harsh experiences and making something bigger than any one individual’s feelings or abilities. And there is plenty to laugh about, along the way.
Biloxi Blues runs through Feb. 4, with performances at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. Tickets are $20 for adults and $10 for students, with special prices for groups of ten or more. The audience was packed on opening night and there were also sizable crowds for the Saturday evening and Sunday matinee of the opening week. For reservations, call the theater at 410-556-6003 or visit the theater website.
Photo Credits: Steve Atkinson and Jane Jewell