The latest production by the Whidbey Playhouse in Oak Harbor is a great blend of comedy and drama. “Lost in Yonkers,” the Tony and Pulitzer Prize winning play by Neil Simon, opens Friday, April 1 and runs through April 17.
The play, set in 1942 in Yonkers, New York, begins with the recently widowed Eddie trying to convince his mother to let his two sons live with her while he takes a traveling sales job down south to pay off doctor and hospital bills from his late wife’s illness.
It may seem like a reasonable request, but the undercurrents running through the play shed light on a very dysfunctional family that includes Eddie’s sisters, Bella and Gert, brother Louie, Grandma Kurnitz and his sons, Jay and Arty.
“One of the most challenging things about this play is how to interpret the sarcasm,” said director Gaye Litka. “These characters are reactors. They are all broken people and it shows in how they’ve adapted.”
Charmed by the movie when it came out in 1993, Litka loved the play and directed “Lost in Yonkers” the first time it was produced at the Playhouse in 1996.
“It’s one of my favorites, so I asked if this one could be considered for the 50th anniversary season,” she said. “It’s a perfect blend of comedy and drama.”
The play, while loaded with sarcastic humor, tells a sweet story through its two main characters: Jay, played by 15-year-old Brenden Darnell; and Arty, played by 12-year-old Harrison Keating. Both give strong performances.
“The boys just knew how to say it,” Litka said. “They have a strong feel for it and do a great job.”
While infused with Neil Simon’s classic wit and humor, there are plenty of dramatic scenes, something Litka especially enjoys.
“As a director, I love working with the actors and pulling the drama out of people,” Litka said. “I love peeling away the layers, kind of like an onion, and finding what’s underneath.”
Cori Siggens plays Grandma Kurnitz, a very stern, strict woman who runs a tight ship in her candy store and in her home, an apartment directly above the shop.
“I kept wanting to make her nicer,” admitted Siggens, adding that her character wanted to teach her children and grandchildren how to be strong.
“She had to survive, and she wants to teach them the value of strength,” she said. “And I saw something in her character that I wanted for myself – I wanted some of that strength.”
Daughter Bella, played by Tamara Sykes, is mentally challenged and lives with Grandma Kurnitz, helping her run the store.
“She’s kind of the smartest of the bunch, really,” said Sykes. “She sees things through the eyes of a child, and sometimes the simplicity of a child sees straight through to the heart of the matter.”
Bella, though sometimes brow-beaten and intimidated by her mother’s toughness, has more strength of character than it might initially appear. While Sykes’ character provides her share of comic relief, she and Siggens share several strong dramatic scenes.
The play also features wonderful performances by Jim Otruba, who plays Louie, and Andrew Huggins, who plays Eddie. A small but memorable appearance by Lisa Judd as their sister Gert, exemplifies some of the issues these adult children have to work through because of the seeming coldness of their mother. The cast comes together to create a very believable family on stage.
“There’s a rapport that builds from being thrust together,” said Sykes. “You bond and really form strong friendships.”
“I love the closeness and the friendships that develop,” said Siggens. “We become like family. It’s a joyful experience.”
Litka encourages people of all ages to come and enjoy the production.
“I like that this show makes people go out feeling something,” she said. “They go out thinking about it, talking about it and how it maybe relates to their own life.”
According to Sykes, Playhouse productions bring the community together.
“It’s a gift to have such high quality theater. We’re blessed to have it in a small town,” she said. “It’s a treasure.”
Tickets for “Lost in Yonkers” are $18 and are on sale at the Whidbey Playhouse box office, 730 SE Midway Blvd. in Oak Harbor. Information is available online at www.whidbeyplayhouse.com or on Facebook. Those interested may also call 360-679-2237 for information.