Tony Award-winning ‘Biloxi Blues’ set for Egyptian Theatre run
The Neil Simon Festival will present Neil Simon’s semi-autobiographical, Tony Award-winning “Biloxi Blues” Wednesday, Aug. 15, through Sunday, Aug. 19. Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday curtain is 8 p.m. Sunday’s performance will start at 6 p.m. Tickets for Wednesday and Thursday range from $15 to $25. Friday, Saturday and Sunday tickets are $19 to $29. Tickets can be purchased by visiting www.parkcityshows.com.
The main thing that sets Neil Simon Festival’s production of Simon’s Tony Award-winning, semi-autobiographical play “Biloxi Blues,” which is set during World War II, from others is that Sgt. Merwin J. Toomey, a central character in the World War II-set story who is traditionally portrayed as Jewish, is instead African-American.
“In 1943 there were no African-American platoon leaders or drill instructors,” said director Clarence Gilyard, who portrays Toomey. “And while Neil addresses race and tradition with the Jewish characters, we heighten it in our production. When Sgt. Toomey makes an entrance, everyone is like ‘Woah, he’s not a cook?’”
“Biloxi Blues,” written by Simon, is about the conflict between Sgt. Toomey and Jewish private Arnold Epstein, played by Joseph Price, as seen through the eyes of Eugene Jerome, another Jewish private, portrayed by Quinn Osborne, while the three are stationed in Biloxi, Mississippi.
The play opens its five-night run at the Egyptian Theatre on Wednesday, and Gilyard hopes this version not only entertains, but educates and enlightens the audience.
“These boys under Toomey’s command are 18 and 19 years old,” Gilyard said. “When they are that age, they are testosterone-laden. Not only do these boys have to negotiate the military world and the nuances of different faiths and family of origins, they have a black drill instructor come in, which is something else they have never experienced.”
One of the challenges Gilyard faced when directing the production was that his cast had little connection to the military.
“My family comes from a strong military background, and the generation or two before me had World War II, Korea and Vietnam that were a part of everything,” he said. “Today, while we’re at war, it doesn’t feel like we’re at war. So the cast and people who are the same ages are quite disconnected from it. So I had to draw from my background to help them understand their characters.”
Doing that was important because Gilyard, whose acting experience includes roles as James “Jimmy” Trivette in the 1990s crime drama “Walker, Texas Ranger,” Theo, the hacker thief in Die Hard” and Lieutenant Marcus “Sundown” Williams in “Top Gun,” needed the production to ring true.
“I want the audience to go back to 1943 and have some type of experience,” Gilyard said. “The audience has to leave their world and come into our world while we are on stage. I want them to laugh. I want them to be a little shocked and I want to educate them.”
Gilyard said Simon’s script provides the tools for a cast to do all of that, but it’s up to the actors to convey the messages.
“Neil Simon is a poet and a lyricist and a comedy writer,” he said. “I had to teach the company that the play is also about language, rhythms and musicality. We’re not reciting in front of the class like we did when we were in junior high school.”
Gilyard said Simon is one of his favorite playwrights because he can find connections within their different upbringings.
“I’m Catholic and African-American and he’s Jewish, but that thread of faith/tradition that permeates and governs his worldview is intriguing to me,” Gilyard said. “Family is important to me and the influence of family on a particular person’s journey is important to Neil Simon particularly with …his (plays starting with the letter B): ‘Brighton Beach,’ ‘Biloxi Blues’ and ‘Broadway Bound.’”
Those three plays are also known as the “Eugene Trilogy,” and feature Eugene Jerome, who is based on Simon, as the main character, Gilyard said.
“‘Biloxi Blues’ is about boys,” he said. “War, at that time in 1943, was about boys. I was aware that working with the cast that I could let them be boys and build on that concept. I could work with their dark and light, positives and negatives and precosity and let that govern their characters while they would still have to be beholden and responsible to the text.”
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