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University Theatre at N.C. State Preview: Playwright Neil Simon's U.S. Army Days Gave Him the Biloxi Blues

September 24, 2004 - Raleigh, NC:


University Theatre at N.C. State mainstay Terri L. Janney will direct a collegiate production of Biloxi Blues Sept. 29-Oct. 3 in Stewart Theatre. Broadway king of comedy Neil Simon's award-winning PG-13-rated comic drama about his days in the U.S. Army in the Deep South is set in 1943 in Biloxi and Gulfport, Mississippi.

Biloxi Blues made its Broadway debut on March 28, 1985 at the Neil Simon Theatre. It is a sequel to Brighton Beach Memoirs (1983) and a prequel to Broadway Bound (1986), which had its first out-of-town tryout in Durham, NC as part of Duke University's Theater Previews at Duke series.

The original Broadway production of Biloxi Blues starred Matthew Broderick as Simon's fictional alter ego, Eugene Morris Jerome; ran for 524 performances; and won three 1985 Tony Awards®, including the Tonys for Best Play and Best Direction of a Play (Gene Saks). Broderick repeated his role in the 1988 motion-picture version of Biloxi Blues, adapted for the silver screen by Neil Simon and directed by Mike Nichols.

"As a Neil Simon fan," recalls Terri Janney, "I first read Biloxi Blues after I directed Brighton Beach Memoirs several years ago. I really enjoyed the follow-up of Eugene Morris Jerome's life as well as the historical value of the play. It is such a period piece. Simon incorporates so much of the American spirit in the play, all the while touching upon the difficult and emotional issues that will confront the 'Greatest Generation' returning home from war.

"Although the play is a comedy," Janney claims, "it never deviates far from the seriousness of the time. I like directing Simon's 'comedies,' because I enjoy the dark undertones of his work that many directors gloss over."

When the curtain rises on Biloxi Blues, Janney says, it is "the spring of 1943 [and] Eugene Morris Jerome (Frank Sarnie) is traveling to Biloxi Mississippi [for] basic training for the Army. His company consists of an array of characters (Ryan Miller, Jeff Besselman, Chad Gowdy, Eric Corely, and Corey Bradford) whose eccentricities are amplified by the close quarters of the Army barracks. It is there that the infamous Sgt. Toomey (Will Sanders) begins his torturous training to whip these recruits into fighting shape to be sent to Europe or the South Pacific.

"Although frightened by the specter of war," Janney adds, "the men face prejudice, racism, and homophobia within their own company. Under these pressures, humor is the only outlet unless you count the weekend passes to the local madam. Eugene's goal is to become a writer, not get killed, and lose his virginity. In the end, he achieves not only his goals, but even falls in love for the first time."

In addition to director Terri Janney, who helped Andrew Korhonen design the show's lighting, the UT production team for Biloxi Blues includes set designer David Jensen and costume designer Lisa Tireman.

Janney says, "The major challenge in staging this play is to get the actors to understand Army life and what life was like in that period. We have put in a lot of time researching what each soldier wore and what personal effects he had. In addition, the physical rigors that soldiers are put through were surprising to many of the students. Because war is only a TV image to our students, we had to make it personal."

She adds, "The scenic design is complicated due to the numerous sets required. David Jensen has designed an outstanding set that creates period and locale easily as well as flows from one scene to the next. The Army barracks are on a large platform that will move; and smaller wagons are brought on for the train, hotel, and bedroom scenes. A black scrim will divide the barracks from those scenes."

Janney says, "The lighting will isolate areas and define space with a nostalgic mood of the period [and] the costumes will try to be as accurate as possible for the uniforms of the period."

The film version of Biloxi Blues is rated PG-13. "The audience should be warned," Terri Janney says, "that although it is a Neil Simon comedy, the language is quite adult and there are adult situations as well."

University Theatre at N.C. State presents Biloxi Blues Wednesday-Saturday, Sept. 30-Oct. 2, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Oct. 3, at 3 p.m. in Stewart Theatre (second floor), Talley Student Center, Raleigh, North Carolina. $16 Friday-Saturday and $14 Wednesday/Thursday/Sunday ($6 for NCSU students and $14 Friday-Saturday and $12 Wednesday/Thursday/Sunday for other students, senior citizens, NCSU faculty and staff, and members of the N.C. State Alumni Association). 919/515-1100. University Theatre at N.C. State: http://www.ncsu.edu/theatre/0405/biloxiblues.htm. Internet Broadway Database: http://www.ibdb.com/Show.asp?id=2035. Internet Movie Database (1988 Film): http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0094746/. Unofficial Neil Simon Home Page: http://www.msu.edu/~pelowsk1/neilsimon/.