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By D. A. Blackburn
The Hilberry Theatre marched out an exceptional production of Neil Simon's quintessential coming-of-age tale Biloxi Blues last Friday night, and in the light of America's current military entanglements, the work has gained a poignancy and relevance that it could never have enjoyed in 1985 when it first opened on Broadway.
The Tony Award-winning play is the second work in what is commonly referred to as Simon's Eugene Trilogy - prefaced by Brighton Beach Memoirs and followed by Broadway Bound - which follows the exploits of Eugene Morris Jerome. The character, considered by many to be a semi-autobiographical sketch of Simon himself, grows from adolescent to adult across the three play cycle, struggling along the way with family issues, sexuality, race, war, love and, finally, post-war life as a struggling writer with a dysfunctional family.
Biloxi Blues catches up with Eugene as he enters boot camp in Biloxi, Miss. in early 1943. The young Brooklyn-born Jew is forced to cope with military discipline and the diverse attitudes and backgrounds of his fellow soldiers. We are reminded of Eugene's youth at every turn - as he prepares for war, loses his virginity and falls in love - and the impact of watching a young soldier march towards adulthood is particularly engaging for its realism.
The Hilberry's production backs Simon's powerful script with a terrific ensemble cast, lead by Sean Ward as Eugene Jerome. The work is one that forces actors into portrayals that are at once vulnerable and indestructible, curious and wise. It demands a wide range of talent from performers, and the Hilberry cast provides plenty, giving the audience an evening full of humor and heart-wrenching honesty in drama.
Dr. Joseph Calarco's direction brings out the best in a relatively large cast, and each performer earns his or her own share of admiration in a production that is uniformly superb.
At the Hilberry Theatre, 4743 Cass Ave., Detroit. Plays in rotating repertory through March 22, 2008. Tickets: $20-$30. For information: 313-577-2972 or www.hilberry.com.
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