- Nathan Willers
At the age of 16 and during the height of World War II, Jewish-American Neil Simon began training with the U.S. Army Air Force Reserve. Almost four decades later, Simon brought basic training to Broadway as a playwright, earning critical acclaim and a Tony Award with Biloxi Blues.
Now, the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center Theatre Company opens its season with Biloxi Blues, the second installment in Simon's autobiographical trilogy that began with last year's season opener, Brighton Beach Memoirs. Main character Eugene Morris Jerome played again by talented teenager Marco Robinson leaves home to join the Army and completes his basic training in Biloxi, Miss.
"The play begins in the spring of 1943 and Eugene, like many young men of the time, is on a train heading to basic training. He doesn't know where he is going to end up at, or even if he will come back," says producing artistic director Alan Osburn, who also notes the play's relevance locally. "Anyone with anything to do with World War II or the military in general should see this play."
Born in the Bronx in 1927, Simon is regarded as one of America's most prolific and popular dramatists of all time. His tragic, yet comical looks at human frailties and foibles expose life's emotional truths in a unique mixture of honesty and humor.
"There is more subtlety in the plays he wrote later in his career starting with the Eugene trilogy," says Osburn. "This more personal and sophisticated humor can be seen in Biloxi Blues. [Simon] pushes the envelope and makes the stakes incredibly high, so that we have to laugh at the situations or else we would break down altogether."
Even though the show's intense dialogue exchanges and subtle humor present interesting challenges to the director, the play's technical demands take center stage.
"Most plays are set in two or three locations, but this show has 10 scene changes," says Osburn.
Scenic designer Christopher L. Sheley, recently recognized by the Pikes Peak Arts Council with the 2008 Technical Theater Award for set design on last season's Sunday in the Park with George, has created an Army base riddled with hidden passageways and transformative spaces.
"The set opens and closes to reveal other locations as the play progresses: bunkhouse, sergeant's office, mess hall, latrine, USO, swamp, park, bordello," he says. "Unlike a musical which utilizes dancers and music to mask scene changes, this play has nothing but dialogue to get us through."
Five months after work on it began, the set's now ready for characters to march through.
"I think we met the technical challenges very well," Osburn says. "We have a great cast, an incredible set and all of the humor and insight from one of Neil Simon's best plays."