Stepping into someone else’s shoes

Theatre MRU students capture Neil Simon’s tale of family ties

Ever since the days of Shakespeare, when men were forced to put on frilly dresses and portray all the female roles, actors have had to deal with the challenges of stepping into characters that are, for all intents and purposes, nothing like themselves. It’s an aspect of acting that is usually a main draw for aspiring thespians, but is also the major hurdle that theatre students have to overcome if they are to succeed in their careers.

The cast of Theatre MRU’s latest production, Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs, has certainly had their share of challenges in portraying the play’s characters. The first installment in a semi- autobiographical trilogy, the show’s roles include a mother and a father, both in their late 40s, an adolescent 14-year-old boy in the throes of puberty (essentially Simon himself), an older brother who’s a second breadwinner for the family, and a pair of teenage cousins. They are all lower-class Jewish New Yorkers living in the titular Brooklyn landmark and surviving the waning years of the Great Depression.

For a professional theatre company, pulling off this story of growing pains and family bonds would be a routine exercise. But for this group of 20-somethings, the task of creating characters that bear no relation to their own personalities, backgrounds, or even ages has proven to be both initially daunting and ultimately rewarding.

“Up until now, I’ve played characters who are my age or younger, and I’ve been most comfortable with characters like that,” says Evan Medd, who plays the father, Jack Jerome. “So to be playing a man who’s twice my age has been a big challenge, but it’s been interesting to see how I can portray that. My character is also recovering from a heart attack in the play, so to portray that physically has been hard, but I’ve learned a lot about building a character.”

Medd is not alone: every actor in the show has something to say about the challenges they faced during the rehearsal process, although some were easier to overcome than others. Adam Klassen, who plays the lead, Eugene Jerome, was able to draw on his own experiences as a pubescent teenager in order to play the hormonal narrator.

“I’ve gone through what Eugene goes through here, where his only goal in life, seemingly, is to see a naked breast,” jokes Klassen. “But it was still a struggle at first to capture the physicality of a 14-year-old; I’ve been there, of course, but it’s easy to forget the awkwardness and the anxiety that goes with that.”

At the same time, some of the actors have little to draw on from their own life experiences. Joe Perry, who plays Eugene’s older brother Stan, has had a completely different upbringing than his character, so much so that he had some trouble at first in relating to Stan’s role in the Jerome household.

“I grew up as the youngest sibling in my family, so I’ve only known how it is to be the so-called ‘baby,’” says Perry, “whereas Stan is the oldest and is sort of a mentor to Eugene, as well as another provider for the family along with the father, so he has a lot of responsibility that I’ve never had to deal with: namely, handing over his salary to his family to put food on the table.”

Fortunately for everyone involved (not to mention audiences), the cast has met these various challenges head-on, and created a production that director J-P Fournier is proud to call a success.

“I can honestly say – and I’m not just saying this because they can hear me – that this cast has been amazing at capturing the essence of this play and creating these characters,” says Fournier. “It’s a hilarious show, but it also has so much truth in it. The fact that these actors’ life experiences are relatively limited hasn’t deterred them one bit. It’s a fantastic show that everyone will enjoy.”

Brighton Beach Memoirs runs Feb. 4-6, 9-12 in the Wright Theatre at Mount Royal. Tickets – which are $10 for students and alumni, $15 for adults – are available at http://www.mtroyal.ca/tickets.

Originally published January 28, 2010