Chicago Theatre Review
Found in Skokie
Lost in Yonkers – Northlight Theatre
Neil Simon is noted for his bright comedies, resplendent with loveably kookie characters and overflowing with sharp, funny one-liners. In 1970 the playwright tapped into his more serious side with “The Gingerbread Lady” and again, seven years later, with his autobiographical “Chapter Two.” In 1983, to great popular and critical acclaim, Simon dug into his past once again and began what would be called his Eugene Trilogy with “Brighton Beach Memoirs.” He continued this series over the next few years with “Biloxi Blues” and “Broadway Bound.” The 90’s took the King of Comedy in an even more dramatic direction beginning with this play, for which he won his fourth Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize.
Drawing once again from his New York childhood, Simon’s father often left home for long periods of time. During these stretches, the playwright and his older brother endured the Depression’s financial hardship and were often were sent to live with relatives. Fictional siblings Jay and Arty have lost their mother when the play opens and are soon left in the care of their fierce paternal German grandmother and their mentally challenged Aunt Bella in Yonkers, while their father searches for work down South. Similar to the young playwright and his brother, Jay and Arty earn some spending money by working in their grandmother’s store. Like Bella, Simon often escaped domestic tensions by seeking refuge at the neighborhood movie theater.
Sporting an impressive resume of directing credits around Chicago, Northlight Educational Director Devon de Mayo impresses with the infusion of honesty she instills in her cast’s performances and the way she utilizes the entire Northlight Theatre space. Grant Sabin’s beautifully detailed scenic design, combined with Rachel Laritz’s authentic, Depression Era costumes and Nick Keenan’s period perfect soundtrack combine, providing an historical reality to the production.
The abundance of information foreshadowing Grandma’s entrance makes Ann Whitney’s portrayal that much more anticipated and realistic. The audience is been prepared for a stern, no-nonsense old world matriarch who rules with an iron hand, and Ms. Whitney doesn’t disappoint. In her astonishing portrayal, which is grounded in reality and never a caricature, our expectations are met. Grandma is every bit the cold, fearsome octogenarian for which we’ve been prepared and yet, somehow, the actress has found a moment or two when that tough facade crumbles giving way to the love that’s buried inside.
Linsey Page Morton is lovable yet vulnerable as Bella, the boys’ “crazy aunt.” Childlike and obsessive/compulsive, Ms. Morton’s Bella becomes the focus of this play. Always trying to keep everyone around her happy but secretly searching for a way to break free and find her own joy, this actress is equally funny and heartbreaking. Sebastian W. Weigman and Alistair Sewell play brothers Arty and Jay with innocence and honesty. While their own dilemma is at the top of the agenda, it’s the boys’ interaction with the adults in their lives, namely Bella and Grandma, that mold this story. The kids‘ flamboyant and somewhat mysterious Uncle Louie (played with flair and a certain mob finesse by Erik Hellman) contributes an important element to the boys’ education. Providing more humor and eccentricity to an already bizarre family, Hellman leaves his indelible mark.
Timothy Edward Kane’s Eddie, the boys‘ father and Bella and Louie’s brother, is especially moving, particularly during his many letters from the road. The pain he tries to hide at having to temporarily break up his family is palpable. Anne Fogarty turns in a nice performance as the boys‘ Aunt Gert, who suffers from an unusual breathing disorder that becomes one of the play’s running jokes.
Northlight’s excellent finale to their 39th season is just one more cause for celebrating this theatrical jewel on Chicago’s North Shore. This Pulitzer Prize-winning story about a family, pulling together to support each other during the hard times of the summer of 1942, is a blend of frank, unsentimental storytelling, authentic characters and is an inspiring lesson of how Americans unite to survive difficult times.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented May 2-June 8 by Northlight Theatre, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie, IL.
Tickets are available at the theatre box office, by calling 847-673-6300 or by going to www.northlight.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.