Story: After 18-year-old Eugene Morris Jerome is drafted into the Army in 1943, he and a number of other recruits take the train from New York City south to Biloxi, Mississippi, where they undertake their basic training before being deployed.
They report to tough-as-nails Sgt. Merwyn Toomey, a hard-drinking, bellowing leader tasked with making t
his cadre of green young men into soldiers. In addition to the Jewish Brooklyn kid Jerome, there’s another New Yorker, intellectual Arnold Epstein, always willing to challenge authority.
Joseph Wykowski lets everyone know about his excessive sexual desires and Don Carney is a genial lad who is easy to befriend. Roy Selridge is a simple-minded Jersey boy who respects authority, while James Hennesey appears to be a decent sort reluctant to disparage anyone.
Eugene fancies himself a future author and keeps a journal of the daily activities at the barracks. He has three primary objectives while he’s in the Army: to fall in love, to lose his virginity and to become a writer. He’s an inquisitive sort, so his encounter with a local prostitute is surprising for several reasons.
When he meets a girl named Daisy Hannigan at a USO dance, however, he’s immediately drawn to the warm, friendly and intelligent young woman who is assigned to mingle with numerous soldiers in the course of the evening.
Eugene’s penchant for writing down his thoughts can be perilous, though, especially when he doesn’t secure his foot locker. Has he told his fellow recruits what he honestly feels about each of them? Will his opinions have a negative effect once revealed? And will Epstein and Toomey reconcile the tension between them even as Toomey prepares these young men for battle in World War II?
Highlights: The middle piece of Neil Simon’s ‘Eugene trilogy’ is given an effective and affecting presentation in Clayton Community Theatre’s current production under artistic director Sam Hack’s gentle direction.
Other Info: Biloxi Blues premiered in Los Angeles in 1984 before transferring to Broadway in 1985, where it closed in 1986 after more than 500 performances. It starred a young Matthew Broderick as Eugene and brought renewed respect to Simon as a playwright proficient not only in comedy but also demonstrating his deft touch with drama as well.
Of the three parts of the trilogy, Biloxi Blues seems to be performed much less often than either the first piece, Brighton Beach Memoirs, or the concluding element, Broadway Bound, at least in the St. Louis area. Having viewed the other two segments several times, it’s a pleasure to take advantage of the opportunity to see CCT’s engaging presentation.
Clayton Community Theatre is in the middle of a three-year endeavor to present all three legs of the 'Eugene trilogy,' which originally was scheduled to be directed by the late Joe O’Connor before his untimely passing in 2018.
There are some solid performances among the cast, most notably Michael Bouchard as the defiant Epstein and Jeremy Schnelt as the easy-going Carney, both of which characters are hurt when Eugene’s journal is opened and read aloud by one of the recruits. Bouchard and Schnelt do a fine job presenting these well-etched characters.
Jeff Struckhoff strikes the right blend of dictator and father confessor as the gritty Sgt. Toomey, who has his own demons challenging his identity, reminders of the steel plate embedded in his skull from a previous injury. Jack Lehmann does well personifying the simplistic Wykowski, eventually revealing the brutish soldier’s own shreds of humanity.
Sam Guillemette and Greg Savel nicely etch the lesser characters, Selridge and Hennesey, respectively, with subtle but revealing touches, and Annie Valuska is amusing as the worldly hooker Rowena, who takes a fancy to Eugene. Completing the cast are Amanda Crawford as the bright, pretty and charming Daisy and Patrick Blanner reprising his role from last season's Brighton Beach Memoirs as the ever observant Eugene, sharing a pleasant chemistry in some sweet scenes together.
Andrew and Zac Cary provide the functional set, complete with bunk beds in the barracks, Nathan Schroeder adds the complementary lighting design and Jean Heckmann’s costumes suitably reflect the times in both military and civilian attire. Hack’s sound design delightfully fills the venue with the Big Band sound and the pop hits of Perry Como and others of the era.
Simon’s dialogue, while containing many of his signature comic moments, also delves into serious subject matter such as anti-Semitism, the treatment of homosexuality at the time and the long-lasting effects of combat on the psyches of soldiers.
Under Hack’s astute guidance, the cast of Biloxi Blues succeeds in carrying the audience back to a time and place increasingly forgotten in the 21st century.
Play: Biloxi Blues
Company: Clayton Community Theatre
Venue: Washington University South Campus Theatre, 6501 Clayton Road
Dates: May 9, 11, 12
Tickets: $15-$25; contact 721-9228 or brownpapertickets.com
Photos courtesy of John Lamb and Julie A. Merkle