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Biloxi Blues                  Geva Theatre Center, 2003

Mark Liu - Democrat and Chronicle

Geva Theatre Center chose one of Neil Simon’s stronger works, Biloxi Blues, to open its season Saturday and did all the right things to make it a satisfying experience.

Sure, as a story about WorldWar II basic training, the play marches down well-traveled terrain.  Eugene Morris Jerome narrates the story of a half dozen recruits plagued by a crazed sergeant, food that looks like something animals throw at theBronx Zoo, and— most difficult of all—each other.  But the story has a fierce struggle at its core, which bristles on stage thanks to finely tuned acting and excellent pacing by director Tim Ocel.

Before that, there’s Simon’s quintessential humor, of course. Alter-ego Eugene dissects the odd personalities around him and lays out his plans for Biloxi:to become a writer, fall in love,lose his virginity and get home alive.  Dennis Staroselsky, who played a younger Eugene Morris Jerome in last season'sBrighton Beach Memoirs, once again brings an endearing blend of misery, innocence and comic perception to the role.

The dramatic turn comes when one private, Arnold Epstein, refuses to bend to the humiliating techniques of theArmy.  The fight is set: Arnold(who, not coincidentally is Jewish) vs. the sergeant.

Fred Berman burns with quiet strength as Arnold, whose unflappable stubbornness is the perfect match for the menacing onslaught of the sergeant, played ferociously well by Lou Sumrall. The part of the sergeant is crucial.  Any wobble from the actor and the sense of danger is lost. Sumrall never stumbles in his machine-gun barking and, just as important, swaggers just enough without being cartoonish.

They excel in those meaty roles, as do the other actors, with nobody letting down the ensemble.  The acting feels trustworthy, with direction that doesn’t try to get flashy or cute.

There are only a few moments when Eugene—whose diary writing seems astute beyond his years—seems too comically innocent.  Of course, that’s a tradeoff Neil Simon will make every time.  But Simon goes deeper here,showing basic training as a mirror image of the war itself.  Fellow soldiers mindlessly label each other and dish out prejudice.  Eugene and Arnold Epstein face anti-Semitism, but Eugene also faces his own lack of courage.  When he doesn’t stickup for Arnold, he guiltily says he feels like Switzerland.

And so Biloxi Blues is actually about a war, fought right therein the hearts and tender minds of a handful of young Americans.  It’s a fight waged well by this intelligent, talented production.

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Helen Mutch / Fred Berman

Biloxi Blues


Geva Theatre Center


Photo: Ken Huth