Ventura has been enjoying some wintry weather, but inside the Conejo Players Theatre, “It’s hot . . . Africa hot.” That’s from a famous line in Neil Simon’s Biloxi Blues, now enjoying a wonderful production under the helm of Erin Fagundes.
The year is 1943 and Eugene Jerome (Benjamin Glasner) and his fellow Army recruits are off to boot camp. They’ve left their homes behind and are headed for hostile parts unknown in Europe or the Pacific. But first they have to survive Biloxi, Mississippi, under the unwavering glare of the snarling Sgt. Toomey (the perfectly gruff Bryan White). To say they’re in the frying pan waiting to get launched into the fire is an understatement. Toomey is an overbearing, foul-mouthed, unforgiving taskmaster. He’s also the unwitting young men’s best chance at becoming soldiers.
The recruits are a mixed bag. Roy Selridge is an innocuous blockhead played with wise-cracking ease by Patrick Rogers. Don Carney, a young man with a song in his heart and too much on his mind, is played by Noah Terry with heartbreaking authenticity. Nick Bemrose breathes three-dimensional life into Joseph Wykowski, a quick-tempered brute. As James Hennesey, Sebastian Williams proves that a look can be worth a thousand words. Then there is Arnold Epstein, an outspoken intellectual who abhors hypocrisy and who bravely butts head with Toomey. Played with commanding sincerity and grit by Steven Silver, Epstein challenges Eugene to be more than just a “watcher.” Epstein is referring to Eugene’s ever-present notebook in which he records all his observations and aspirations. Eugene, played with endearing wide-eyed wonder by Glasner, has four dreams he hopes will come true in Biloxi: Lose his virginity, fall in love, become a writer and not get killed.
Two of Eugene’s dreams come true with the help of women from opposite sides of the tracks. Rowena, the woman who schools Eugene, is played with sassy Southern charm by Judy Diderrich. The nice girl who captures his heart is Daisy, played with an ebullient mix of innocence and knowing by Shelby Corley.
The set, including barracks, boudoir and a cunning little train compartment, are cleverly designed by John Holroyd. The costumes and props, ranging from Army uniforms and call-girl negligee to USO regalia and mess-hall slop, resonate with realism thanks to costume designer Tiffany Smith and prop mistress Carolyn Lu. Sound designer Seth Hackett and lighting designer Jim Diderrich make the sights and sounds of everything — from hot Mississippi nights to a train barreling toward the future — feel real. Erin Fagundes, directing with a light yet impactful touch, is teamed with the talented assistant director Janelle Phaneuf, stage manager Don Johnson and producer Jen Isaacs.
The men’s anxiety over “what comes next” is an undercurrent that runs through Biloxi Blues, the second play in Simon’s Eugene trilogy. (It is sandwiched between Brighton Beach Memoirs and Broadway Bound.) Because this is Neil Simon, grim realities (war, injustice, loss) are mixed in a cocktail of humor and tenderness that masks their bitterness without losing their sting.
We feel for these young men who have no idea what they’re getting themselves into, and who are connecting to each other in ways they never expected. Biloxi Blues is first and foremost a beloved comedy, but its truths are no less real now than they were in 1943, or in 1985 when the play debuted on Broadway. As Eugene realizes, the future will be what it will be, so find the humor and seize the hope. When the curtain falls we are left laughing with a glint of a tear.
Biloxi Blues plays through Feb. 4 at Conejo Players Theatre, 351 S. Moorpark Road, Thousand Oaks. For tickets and more information call 495-3715 or visit www.conejopayers.org.