CEDAR CITY — It’s another beautiful day at the Neil Simon Festival, and Biloxi Blues is a great experience. Neil Simon wrote this comedic play, and, like other plays in the his triology (Brighton Beach Memoirs and Broadway Bound), he added in some tear-jerking moments and serious themes that give the story depth.
Five men travel to Biloxi, Mississippi, for basic training in the army during Word War II. Sergeant Toomey is degrading, condescending, and punishes them immediately for no reason at all. They argue with each other about girls, sex, religion, and obedience, all the while trying to survive the latrine duties and midnight hikes through predator-infested swamps. Eventually, the soldiers get a couple days off, and Eugene has his first experience with a woman. Later on he meets the girl of his dreams who becomes his first love. By the end his unit is shipped off to fight and he wraps up the story comically.
Director Clarence Gilyard has created a thoroughly amazing production. The cast had such energy throughout the show that kept my interest, even though I’ve never been drawn to war stories. For example, there were a few fight scenes and wrestling moments with the boys that looked great. When Roy stops Eugene from being able to get his journal by twisting his arm, I actually felt the pain in my arm and wished he would stop. The blocking for each scene added to the hilarity or seriousness of the situation. When they ride in on the train, they are all smashed close together, one guys foot in the other guys face. And then when Epstein is telling about his horrible experience in the latrines, the stillness of the movement added to the somber feeling of that scene.
This show was extremely well cast. In addition to directing, Gilyard played Sergeant Toomey. But for the performance I attended, the understudy, Randy Lawrence Seely was standing in for Gilyard. Seely did extremely well, despite having to read many of his lines. When he read all the lines about the latrine, it was so funny that I forgot he was reading them.
Eugene was played by Quinn Osborne, who had such a fun excited face for many of his monologues that I couldn’t stop laughing, such as when he was going into the brothel he says, “I turned and entered the Temple of Fire,” with such wide eyes and serious expression. I also enjoyed his ability to change posture when facing the audience for narration. His body language showed that he was about to explain something or to tell the audience a secret.
My favorite character, Arnold Epstein, was played by Joseph Price. He was so timidly yet logically anti-authority that I thought he might “beat” the Sergeant at his own game (which he eventually did). And the pain Epstein showed when talking about the guys torturing him in the latrine was so deep that I cried. Joseph, played by Devin Anderson, was a fun and predictable character who set the tone for the army by doing and saying the “right” things. He was celebratory of his libido and strong in his convictions. It was fantastic to see his change of heart toward Epstein at the end, from bullying him about being a Jew, to respecting him for his ability to add variety and change tons situation. Roy (played by Max Kunz) was a great counterpart who balanced out Joseph throughout the show either by being the wrestling buddy or helping him to calm down (such as when Joseph was mad about his money being stolen). I love Kunz’s line, “What, you think I’m stupid enough to tell you that I took your money?”
The use of sound, designed by Will Cowser, was excellent at always adding to the ambience. I appreciated the crickets chirping during the night scene with Eugene and Don Carney, played by Zane Brady. Brady also added to this experience with his fantastic a capella singing voice. I also liked Cowser’s choice of army chants in the background as the soldiers get on the train at the end of the play.
One moment in Biloxi Blues that made me laugh harder than ever that I must mention was the scene with Eugene in the brothel. Gilyard directed it so hilariously and still kept it PG-13. The lady asked Eugene if he wants the light on or off and after the light went out, I thought the scene was over . . . until I heard Osborne’s high-pitched nervous laughter and after a few moments he yells, “I did it!” That is some quality writing on Simon’s part.
The best thing about this show is that it shares the depth of pain from being different. Because Price is Jewish, he gets a lot of flack from the guys, and it is heartbreaking to see the same thing happening in the army, even between best friends. From seeing this I, along with Price, have received some understanding of human differences.
There is so much talent to see for this festival and a huge theater to fit all who want to come. Biloxi Blues is so well written, directed, and performed that I can’t wait to see what else they have in store here!