With countless Americans still recovering from the aftermath of the 2008 recession, it’s easy to draw comparisons to the Great Depression and subsequent “Roosevelt Recession” of the 1930s. Portland Stage taps into the similarities of the eras with Neil Simon’s “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” delivering a feel-good production that reminds audiences to find laughter in hardship and strength in family.
The play is set in the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn in September 1937. Overwhelming poverty gripped the nation and World War II loomed on the horizon, forcing extended families to live literally on top of each other, crammed into single-family homes and tiny apartments.
Portland Stage artfully recreates this reality with a reimagined set by Brittany Vasta. Timber-framed walls shape the skeletal, multilevel home, allowing the audience to see into, and through, all rooms simultaneously.
Chairs form stairs between the piled-up levels, invoking thoughts of ingenuity and threatened instability. But, like the family dwelling within the house, the structure has hidden strength and unbreakable ties.
The play is told from the point of view of 15-year-old Eugene, played Matt Mundy. The dynamite actor captured the hearts of the audience from the moment he stepped on stage opening night.
As his character played baseball, delivering a play-by-play of the World Series, the audience could feel the excitement of what it was like to be a young fan in New York during the golden age of baseball. And his delivery was thoroughly entertaining.
Mundy utilizes his full resume for the role, incorporating his talents as a voiceover artist. He not only does a dead-on radio announcer, but also turns on an Irish accent to narrate a letter from a neighbor.
He’s believable as a teenager, delivering an irresistible combination of wry humor and wide-eyed expressions that send laughter reverberating through the audience.
The seven-member cast has already gelled, playing off each other with ease. There is a natural flow to their interaction, whether they are delivering heartfelt emotions of fear and uncertainty or finding the joy amongst their characters’ daily struggles.
Mary Jo Mecca and Corey Gagne deliver strong performances as Eugene’s strict Jewish mother, Kate, and his overworked father, Jack. Marek Pavlovski is moving as Eugene’s 18-year-old brother, Stanley.
Along with Eugene’s immediate family members, the cast of characters includes Eugene’s aunt, Blanche, and cousins Nora and Laurie. When Blanche’s husband died at the age of 36, her older sister, Kate, took her and her children in, creating a less than ideal living situation for both families.
Abigail Killeen elicits empathy as the displaced mother of two, and Julia Knitel is well cast as the oldest daughter, 16-year-old Nora. Killeen and Knitel nicely flesh out the strained mother/daughter relationship.
Elaine Landry and Dora Chaison-Lapine, both seventh graders, share the role of Laurie. Landry performed opening night, delivering a spunky performance.
“Brighton Beach Memoirs” offers an intimate view of a family who has been thrown many curve balls in life. Although the play is set in the 1930s, the family’s struggles are still relevant today. And the characters are easy to identify with.
It’s an endearing, funny play, and Portland Stage hits it out of the ballpark, driving home an uplifting message of hope.
WHERE: 25A Forest Ave., Portland
DATE REVIEWED: Sept. 26; play runs through Oct. 19
TICKETS: $42-$47 ($38-$43 seniors 65-plus, $20 students)
CONTACT: 207-774-0465, portlandstage.org