Monday, March 11, 2013

Find your way to Pottstown for 'Lost in Yonkers'

Bella, played by Shawneen Rowe, center with her two nephews, Artie, Sebastian Coates, left, and Jay, Tom Aglio Jr., right. Photos by John Daggett

 By Cheryl Thornburg

 There is no doubt that Neil Simon deserved the Pulitzer Prize for  “Lost in Yonkers.”  With its clever dialogue that moves seamlessly from being humorous to poignant and characters that are unique and a little odd, yet very familiar, it surpasses his earlier works such as “Barefoot in The Park” and “The Odd Couple” and takes his art to a whole new level.
Barbara Hannevig as Grandma Kurnitz
All of his extraordinary words, however, would have little impact without an extraordinarily talented cast to deliver them, and director Brian Drillinger has found just such a cast for Steel River Playhouse’s current production in Pottstown.
Simon’s story of Jay and Artie, two Jewish boys who are left to stay in Yonkers, N.Y., with their stern and cold grandmother while their father is traveling for work in 1942, has lasting and universal appeal. Bringing Jay and Artie to life are two young actors Tom Aglio Jr. as Jay the older brother and 13-year-old Sebastian Coates as Arty.  The brotherly camaraderie between the two is quite believable. Coates manages to say a lot just with facial expressions that are perfectly suited to the somewhat rebellious young Artie. He and Aglio deliver line after line with such sincerity that the audience can’t help but root for them.
This is a coming-of-age story for both boys as they discover a lot about themselves and their family. Although their Aunt Bella is 35, this is sort of a coming-of-age story for her as well.
Shawneen Rowe lights up the stage with a brilliant performance as Bella, the boys’ not-quite-all-there aunt, whose child-like enthusiasm makes her one of Simon’s most loveable characters. Rowe is riveting in the second act as Bella struggles to assert herself and stand up to her intractable mother.
In contrast to Bella’s warm and outgoing personality is the harsh and formidable Grandma Kurnitz, played to perfection by Barbara Hannevig. She strikes fear into every character on stage and triggers memories in audience members of loved ones or teachers who could stop you dead in your tracks with just a look.
Brian Gildea evokes sympathy as Eddie, the boys’ father, who is forced to leave the boys for 10 months to pay off debts he incurred for the care for his wife before she died. The familial chemistry rings true, particularly as he reluctantly explains to the boys why he has to leave them behind.
Jarad Benn plays Eddie’s brother, Uncle Louie, who is a somewhat disreputable guy, a henchman for a local gangster.  And yet he’s family and he takes the boys under his wing and offers tips on how to survive living with grandma. Benn’s Louie is boisterous and likeable and adds another dimension to this dysfunctional family.
Shawneen Rowe, right, as Bella confronting her family.
Rounding out the family circle is Andrea Frassoni as Aunt Gert, a somewhat nervous young woman who no longer lives at home, but has strange breathing reactions when she visits. Frassoni shows a definite flair for comedy and manages to get lots of laughs, even though she is not on stage as much as the other actors.
Drillinger’s direction has forged a memorable production in just a short few weeks. Ripples of laughter could be heard throughout the entire course of the play, punctuated by silence as painfully personal dramatic moments captivated the audience’s attention.
Jarad Been as Uncle Louie., center, with Sebastian Coates,
left, and Tom Aglio Jr., right.
A team of first-rate, set, lighting, sound and costume designers add to the success of this show. Music from the ’40s sets the tone of the era and moves the plot forward through set changes while an impeccably appointed set recreates Grandma’s living room with its huge antique radio and doily-covered furniture. The costumes have a vintage feel that enhances the actors’ performances. Put it all together and you have another Steel River Playhouse total-package production that is worthy of any stage and worth the price of the ticket and a trip to Pottstown.
 “Lost in Yonkers” continues through March 24. Thursday performances are at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. Tickets range from $15 to $23.  Steel River is located at 245 E. High St., Pottstown. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit   or call 610-970-1199.


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