Produced by the Footlight Players
Sept. 18-20, 25-27, Sept. 28, 3 p.m.
Footlight Players Theatre, 20 Queen St.
The Footlight Players kicked off their 77th season Friday with a production of Biloxi Blues, Neil Simon's coming-of-age comedy about a young man from Brooklyn who spends 10 weeks of Army boot camp in Biloxi, Miss.
The opening attracted a considerable audience that spilled out of the Queen Street lobby and into the quiet streets, where the late summer's sticky air and the flickering gas lamps set the tone for this nostalgic play.
The audience largely comprised of older couples decked out in their Friday night best and younger couples, many of whom were Citadel students, crisp in their uniforms with pretty girls hanging from their arms.
These groups reflect the dual attractions of a play about American soldiers training for World War II. The older group looks back and smiles, while younger couples see themselves in Simon's characters, laughing at the awkwardness of adolescence, and feeling proud to serve their country.
The play's funny, endearing story, its fine cast, and its elaborate, orchestrated set — which over the course of the production switches from the interior of a train to a brothel, from an Army barracks to a USO dance hall — keeps the audience pleasantly removed from present-day worries.
Eugene Jerome (played by Alex Hoffman) is a timid, curious New Yorker searching for life experiences and a little bit of adventure. When he enlists in the Army, he is stationed in Biloxi for boot camp.
We first meet him and his fellow soldiers on a train headed there. The interior of the train car provides ample exposure to his new platoon members. Each is young, naïve, and trapped in a quickly changing world.
Boot camp is volatile and uncomfortable. Their sergeant is a dictator of obedience. He instills the Army's philosophy of camaraderie and sacrifice.
This doesn't sit well with some, especially Arnold Epstein (played by Patrick Ryan), who is reluctant to subscribe to Army doctrine. Epstein is an intellectually motivated Jewish New Yorker. His is a penchant for undermining others with an aloof and superior attitude.
As the play moves along, Eugene discusses the four things he wants most out of his wartime experience: lose his virginity, fall in love, become a writer, and survive the war. These desires, of course, are the stuff of adolescence. Eugene suffers false starts and spends most of his time writing his "memoirs," an endeavor that causes him equal distress and satisfaction.
The play spreads out like a paean to America's Greatest Generation. For contemporary audiences, the drama and humor is insufficient, leaning on nostalgia and recognition rather than stimulating conflict and narrative. Biloxi Blues is either a snore or an amusing account of what life used to be like. It just depends on who is watching.
But it's a lighthearted comedy that's also a classic adolescent story, populated by two-dimensional characters whose problems and fears still hold true for most of us today. The play, too, no matter how conveniently it ends, is supported by solid performances.
Patrick Ryan's portrayal of Epstein is especially rich. Epstein's physically vulnerable yet mentally strong disposition marks him as a direct contrast to Alex Hoffman's Eugene, who survives by not exposing himself too much.
Both of these young performers, along with the rest of the cast, do Biloxi Blues a service: They pump new blood into old characters and make us remember America's past as much as we ponder its future.