December 13, 2019

Oh, the humanity New Surry Theatre’s ‘Lost in Yonkers’ offers pathos amid laughter

In the last seven months, three productions of Neil Simon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Lost in Yonkers” have been produced in Maine. Kent McKusick of Northern Lights Theatre traveled locally with one at the end of summer. Sandra Cyrus of ORONO Players mounted another in the fall. And Bill Raiten’s New Surry Theatre did it again in December.

The show was so popular in Ellsworth, said Raiten, he was asked to reprise it this weekend with the same cast.

The play, which is about a Jewish family in New York during World War II, is a comic and poignant piece about the wacky balance of harmony and dysfunction in any American family. Before the show opens, Eddie has lost his wife to illness and is broke from doctor bills. While still in mourning, he takes his two teen sons to Yonkers to leave them with his stern German mother and mentally slow sister while he takes a traveling job. The story revolves around the boys and their relationship to their family members, including a gangster uncle and a lisping aunt.

“The play has such humanness to it,” said Raiten. “You take a family and the family has all these troubles. They are not the same as every family or as any family, but they are similar enough that everyone can feel the compassion that brothers and sisters have, the protectiveness. They can feel the need the mother has to try to protect in her own way. And they can see the need and the pain of the father who has to leave his children to pay a debt. Through the children’s eyes you see the humor. They have the freedom to see life as funny and wonderful.”

Raiten compared the experience of this play to Frank McCourt’s memoir “Angela’s Ashes,” a bittersweet Irish tale of family life. It’s very sad, but a child’s perspective injects it with amusing interpretations of life. While Simon’s tale can be profoundly affecting, it is also immensely entertaining.

“Neil Simon has a way of making you laugh,” added Raiten. “People laugh so hard they have tears in their eyes. Then they feel so strongly during more difficult parts of the play and they cry for different reasons. But when an audience walks out of that theater after having had an emotional attachment to what they saw on that stage, they are so happy.”

For the actors, all of whom have studied acting with Raiten over the years, the play was a lesson about the fine line between tragedy and comedy. In rehearsals, Raiten directed the action as if the play were more somber than funny, more Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams than Neil Simon.

“We never realized how funny this play was until we did it in front of an audience and heard the laughter,” said Jim Pendergist, an insurance company owner who made his stage debut in the production in December.

The reprise of the play also marks the beginning of a producing relationship between New Surry Theatre and The Grand. After “Yonkers,” Raiten begins rehearsals for Michael Frayn’s loopy backstage sex comedy “Noises Off,” which, coincidentally, has also been recently produced in Maine and is currently a hit on Broadway.

For the moment, however, Raiten is giving last-minute notes to the cast of “Yonkers.”

“The most thrilling thing an audience can do is walk out and feel the joy the actors felt and then be reminded of their own joy for living,” said Raiten. “That’s why this play is popular in Maine and everywhere else: the resiliency to find joy in difficult situations. I know people are walking out happier than when they walked in.”

The Grand Auditorium and The New Surry Theatre will present “Lost in Yonkers” at 7 p.m. April 5 and 6 and 2 p.m. April 7 at the Grand Auditorium in Ellsworth. For tickets, call 667-9500.

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