Nancy Lewis is as good as I’ve ever seen her as the tough-as-nails German-born matriarch of the Kurnitz clan, and Kelly Weber matches her as the childlike daughter, Bella, who is 35 years old chronologically, but has been pigeonholed by her mother, due to a doctor’s questionable advice long ago, as much younger than her actual age. In reality, she is a strong woman, even if she has a simple world view, and she is more caretaker than the recipient of care. When we meet these women, it is 1942, and they live together above the candy store Mrs. Kurnitz owns and the two women operate. Bella’s father died before she was born, and the two have become accustomed to their narrow lives, or so it would seem on the surface.
On this day, Bella’s older brother Eddie (Gary Glasgow) a recent widower turns up with his two teenage sons in tow. Jay (“Jacob” to Grandma) is 15 ½, and Arty (“Artur, the formal old-world woman calls him), 13 ½ , and they hardly know their grandmother. Eddie wasn’t interested in visiting his unpleasant and intimidating mother after he was married, but now he has to come to her. It seems that Eddie’s wife’s long illness sent him into debt and he is beholden to a loan shark who has called in his marker to be paid before the end of the year. So, Eddie takes a job as a traveling salesman of scrap metal, a way during wartime to make the most money, which means his boys will need a home for the next 10 months.
When the play opens, Eddie and his mother are sequestered in her room while Jay (Robert Love) and Arty (Leo B. Ramsey) are sweating in their best clothes in the sweltering living room of the small apartment, cooled only by a table fan. They haven’t yet been informed of their father’s plans, apparently because he wants to get his mother’s approval before he breaks the news to the boys. He emerges from time to time, clearly nervous himself, to correct them on their unacceptable behaviors such as lolling on the furniture with their heads on the clean doilies “(“You mean you need a shampoo to sit on the furniture” Arty asks). He needs the energetic and rambunctious duo to make a good impression, but they don’t know why. When they find out, they are horrified.
Waiting for Grandma to emerge becomes suspenseful. Will she be as awful as everyone says she is? Stories of her prowess using her cane as a weapon are legend. She’s even blamed for Bella’s developmental delays because of cracking her across the head too many times. Will she take the boys in? Of course we know she will or else there wouldn’t be a play, but it’s one of the piece’s strengths that the audience is made to feel unsure anyway. And we certainly don’t know how she’ll treat them. Grandma Kurnitz emerges at last, bearing herself like the Queen of Prussia cane and all, and in no uncertain terms, says she will not keep the children and has good reasons not to. How she is turned around is a surprise that I won’t spoil here.
So, the boys must adjust to Grandma, to Yonkers, and to their new life among their oddball relatives. Their uncle, Louie (Michael Scott Rash), is a bag man for the mob and comes to the apartment to hide out for a bit. He gives the boys something to talk about (“It’s like living in a Cagney movie,” Arty marvels) but also explains some home truths to them that affect them deeply. Rash is perfect in the role. Dad pops up between scenes to narrate a series of letters about his travels, including his bouts of poor health that he tells his sons them not to worry about, but of course they do. Jay instigates more than one plot to try to get the money to bring Dad home.
Bella, meanwhile, has an announcement to make, and she gathers the whole family to tell them about it, but she is so wrought up that she needs Jay’s help to get started. The fourth living child (Grandma suffered the loss of an infant daughter and a 12-year-old son long ago), Gert (Sigrid Sutter) turns up for this discussion turned altercation. She is so afraid of her own mother that she literally loses her breath in mid-sentence much of the time. Unfortunately, she’s the only real weak link in the story, as far as I’m concerned, because she seems like more of a plot device than a fully formed character, but Sutter does interesting work with what little she has to do. Life changes for everyone else, however, through this absorbing comedy-drama, and watching it all play out is a joy.
I was most impressed by the unknown Love and Ramsey as the central characters who are still grieving for their mother and are literally “lost” in Yonkers. Love is a high school student (his drama teacher is Kelly Weber) and this is his first professional production, but you’d never know it. Ramsey has a lot more experience, having been performing since the age of 8 with various youth companies around town and in some adult theatre, as well, including a part in last season’s extraordinary Way to Heaven at NJT. He nails the adolescent boy who is a bundle of energetic contradictions, voice changes and all, and it would be hard not to both empathize and sympathize with them. Grandma is as tough a taskmaster as she has been advertised to be and she intimidates the boys, but somehow Lewis manages to be strict, even unfair at times, but the love she has for them still comes through.
The scenic design by Justin Barisonek accurately depicts a 1940s era apartment with plenty of playing space for the actors, giving us a realistic sense of place which Michael Sullivan’s lights enhance. Michele Friedman Siler’s costumes are fine, though she does get a lot of guidance from the script which describes what they should look like. Robin Weatherall has chosen appropriate period music for the emotions of the scenes it punctuates, and Meg Brinkley has done a lot of digging for all the detailed props that create a sense of home. In sum, this is one of Simon’s finest plays, and it has the prizes, including the Pulitzer to prove it, but it wouldn’t need them to pull the audience into its world. I hope you’ll find time to get lost—and found—in Yonkers.