Five young men are on their way to make heroes out of themselves as new American soldiers. They have their own goals and motivations for undergoing Army training but they share a fresh naivety about themselves and their place in the world. Biloxi Blues hints at a reconfiguration of American masculinity in a rapidly changing global landscape.
Written as a semi-autobiographical account by Neil Simon, the script follows new recruit Eugene M Jerome (Julian Floriano) from day one of a ten week training course to the end of World War II and the many milestones he documents in his memoirs. The Army will form the perfect inspiration for his writing aspirations and his plans to become a man of the world. His platoon consists of five other characters from across their country who bring their own insecurities to the barracks. James J Hennesey (Ben Freeman) establishes boundaries early as an Irish African American man with no time for bigotry; Joseph T Wykowski (Jason Spindlow) and Roy W Selridge (Chris Butel) are the macho men who approach all situations with aggression; Donald J Carney (Daniel Vavasour) is a simple man hoping to find direction in the armed forces; and that leaves Arnold B Epstein (Agustin Lamas), an intellectual Jewish man who plans to outsmart the primitive instincts of this military institution. Jerome documents them all in his journal of passing thoughts, which leads to some unexpected consequences.
Training puts the Privates under the cold control of Sergeant Merwin J Toomey (Chris Lundie) who punishes freely with push-ups, inedible food, latrine duty, and surprise midnight hikes. The men get into their own trouble, too, visiting sex workers on their weekend leave, stealing, and getting into sexual relationships with each other, something outlawed in 1943. Simon’s script covers plenty of ground in terms of social and political attitudes towards war, homosexuality, religion, and race with touches of vintage bigotry that are often overwhelmed by pleasant progressiveness.
Of particular interest is the character development of Epstein who begins the production as a pedantic, arrogant, and provocative man who comes to understand the true meaning of compassion in his battles with Sergeant Toomey. The climatic confrontation between the two, while fairly unbelievable in its premise, provides a moving catharsis to the hyper-masculinity and overtly aggressive dominance displayed throughout the rest of the narrative. In no small part this can be attributed to Lamas’s excellent rendition of the character, from his smarmy physicality to the authenticity of him at breaking point.
As an ensemble, the men are played true to form with a comfortable cohesion that kept the story compelling even in its length. Written with Jerome narrating, the production could often feel like spending two hours listening to a biographical lecture with an overwhelming amount of exposition and little room for action when set in the same barracks scene after scene. Director Meredith Jacobs overcomes these challenges by humanising and enlivening each Private as a fully fleshed character with recognisable idiosyncrasies and sympathetic motivations. Each actor is distinctly invested in their character and it works wonders for the luxurious pacing.
The design is charmingly of the decade with familiar show tunes and radio hits integrated into the sound design from Bernard Teuben. Set designer Trevor Chaise should be specially commended for a clever construction that seamlessly transitioned between locations while also feeling substantial as institutional Army barracks. A colour palette of khaki, grey, and beige covered both the set and costumes designed by Annette Snars, which faithfully recreated the harsh environment of wartime America. Overall, the production team demonstrated an exceptional attention to detail.
Hyper-masculinity is often viewed as an innocuous fact of being a man and fulfilling the expectations of manhood but the indoctrination of war can be a fertile place to examine the toxicity and harm of those expectations. For better or worse, the Army brought Simon’s characters into their own and the by-product Biloxi Blues offers an opportunity to re-examine how the presentation of masculinity has changed or stayed the same since the mid-century.
Biloxi Blues is running at the Pavilion Theatre from July 26th – August 17th