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Play set in the 1930s feels relevant today

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Sarah Orenstein

Award-winning actress Sarah Orenstein brings her four decades of stage performance to the Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company’s production of Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs, running from May 22 to June 10 at The Greenwin Theatre in the Toronto Centre for the Arts.

The play is set in Brighton Beach in September 1937 during the Depression. It is a coming-of-age comedy about Eugene Morris Jerome, a Polish-American Jewish teenager who experiences puberty, sexual awakening and a search for identity as he tries to deal with his family, including his older brother and his parents (Orenstein plays his mother), as well as his aunt and her two daughters, who come to live with them after his uncle’s death.

Brighton Beach Memoirs is part of a trilogy of plays including Biloxi Blues and Broadway Bound.

“It is Neil Simon’s loose autobiographical play,” says Orenstein.  “I say loose because he put it obviously into a fictional world. It is basically a growing-up story. He uses Eugene, the youngest boy, as the narrator of the play, who wants to be a writer and can’t wait to be out in the world.”

As the narrator, Eugene recounts a few days when lots of changes happened on the cusp of the Second World War in his working-class Jewish family.

“It is Neil Simon, so it is very funny.  It also is about a family that is crammed in because they had to take in relatives.  They are hardworking immigrants struggling to get ahead in the world with four teenagers in the house with a possible war on the horizon.”

Directed by renowned actress Sheila McCarthy, other actors include Umed Amin, Meghan Caine, David Eisner, Kelsey Falconer, Lawrence Libor and Nicole Underhay. Last season, Orenstein performed in My Name is Asher Lev for the theatre company in a co-production with Studio 180. She is happy to be back.

Orenstein describes her character as a long-suffering mother. “She runs the house, keeping everybody on track. She is the daughter of immigrants and works hard, to the point that she doesn’t take the time to think about herself. There are moments in the play when there are sparks between her and her sister because she doesn’t look after herself emotionally and gets deprived now and then.”

The actress hopes audiences will take away what Simon intended, which is the warmth and importance of family, even when conflicts and tragedy strike. It is the heart, the humour and the strength of family, she says, that get you through it.

Orenstein, a Halifax native, got started in the industry at age five in productions staged at the city’s venerated Neptune Theatre.

She now lives in Toronto, where theatregoers may recognize her from her appearances in stage productions such as The Normal Heart, Stuff Happens, Hana’s Suitcase and Shakespeare in Love. She’s also appeared in both the Shaw and Stratford festivals.

She has a personal connection to her role in Brighton Beach Memoirs, however, because she, like her character, has two sons.

She adds that this production is now considered a period piece, when 20 years ago it wouldn’t have been.

“I believe it’s a chord that still strikes today – we understand immigrant families,” she adds. “There are a lot of people who remember that time, and it is not a period piece for them. Lots of details are not that shockingly different now.”

She also notes that the themes will resonate particularly strongly in 2018.

“Not to put a heavier cap on it than Neil Simon intended, but there is a whisper of fascism in the world coming back,” she says. “This family is just chugging along in their life, making sure to pay their bills, but there are these echoes of what’s going on in the world, and that’s very much what we are all coping with now.”

Tickets to the show can be purchased by calling 1-855-985-2787 or going online to hgjewishtheatre.com.