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by Christopher Brinckerhoff

Chicago – Community theaters attract small audiences, but their productions are no small feat. Besides the myriad of roles needed to produce and operate shows, careful content choices fill out the quality. One director selects lesser-known pieces, including “Lost in Yonkers” by Neil Simon, to run at Cutting Hall in Palatine.

Theatre Nebula founder and Yonkers director J. Spencer Greene is also the Palatine Park District’s theater coordinator. Nebula’s Yonkers ran at Cutting Hall in Palatine from October 3 to October 19.

Cutting Hall, where Greene runs operations, is one of the final remnants of Palatine High School’s building that was vacated in the late seventies. The space is a fitting home for “Lost in Yonkers,” in part, because it’s about remembering family history.

“This being a memory play,” Greene said, “we see the story through the memory of the two children. A lot of the things are somewhat exaggerated because it’s the way they remember them.”

shots of community theater in action. hear it - smell it. photos by christopher brinckerhoff.
shots of community theater in action. hear it – smell it. photos by christopher brinckerhoff.

Greene said he chose this play because the audience can relate with the characters without the characters acknowledging they are being humorous. The characters seem to be more unintentionally funny.

Some of Neil Simon’s plays had characters that went right for the laugh, according to Greene. An example of this was “The Odd Couple.” But there were others with more serious characters. Green said that is why he chose “Lost in Yonkers.”

“I love Neil Simon; don’t get me wrong,” Greene said. “But it seems to me in a lot of his plays, the earlier plays, the characters know they are being funny. You just sort of get a sense that a lot of it is played for the laugh. Whereas his more serious plays [like] “The Gingerbread Lady” [and] “Lost in Yonkers,” the humor comes out of the realistic situation of the characters. It’s real. You laugh because you’ve experienced something like that, or because these characters are people that you identify with.”

Yonkers performer and Arlington Heights resident, Tom Akouris works at a commercial collection agency by day. Akouris played the widowed father of two boys in Yonkers, Eddie Kurnitz. The Park Ridge native said his character faces challenges similar to today.

“Well, here is a guy who is very much in tandem with what’s going on now,” Akouris said. “He’s a single parent, to use a current term. He is finding himself financially strapped, and he has got to rely on the last people in the world he would want to. And that is his dysfunctional, immediate family. He has to leave his two children in the care of his mother and his mentally challenged sister.”

Yonkers was appropriate for Palatine right now because families confronted with tough decisions to separate due to financial concerns can see themselves in the characters, according to Akouris.

“These two boys found themselves in a completely different place with a completely different authority figure to deal with,” Akouris said. “The father is very lenient. It appears as though he wants to be a friend of the boys. The grandmother is not interested. She said ‘I had six kids; I don’t want two more.’ She’s very cold. And so they’re finding themselves lost.”

The characters in plays such as Yonkers captivate audiences because there is a connection, according to Green.

“The humor in it sets you up for the drama,” Greene said. “You’re laughing and then it’s just like all of a sudden – boom. It changes. And it hits you, and you’re sucked in.”

In that moment there is an emotional release, Greene said.

“And because you’re sucked into the character and the humor gets you to like these people, or, if you don’t like a certain person, you’re still drawn to them because they’re an incredibly interesting person,” Greene said. “And you’re trying to figure out why they are the way they are. And then, all of a sudden you realize you’re totally sucked into what’s happening. And the drama hits you emotionally because you care about them.”

Greene said it is important to produce plays like Yonkers in Palatine  “because [students] have not been exposed to them much, if at all in the past. They rarely do that sort of stuff in high schools.”

Palatine resident and Yonkers attendee Sheila Griffin also said Yonkers was timely for Palatine.

“With the war that’s going on, with the depression that’s possibly hitting everyone, it really hits home ’cause everyone’s got a tight pocket right now,” Griffin said. “Everyone’s wondering where they’re going to get their next buck.”

Community theater has a hard time attracting audiences, and is struggling in the evolving entertainment and media markets, according to Akouris.

“I think that community theater is in a lot of trouble, Akouris said. “And I think it’s because people do not warm up to live theater because of all the other available media or medium out there. I think there’s a lot of competition.”

Copyright 2008

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