The next installment of the Kenai Performers theater season opens this weekend with the production of “Lost in Yonkers.”
The show marks the directorial debut of Cheri Johnson with the Kenai Performers. Johnson’s experience in the peninsula theater scene and outside the state is extensive, but Friday marks the first time she will direct a show with the Kenai Performers group.
For those who know Johnson well, “Lost in Yonkers” promises to be a master class in theater from someone who easily relates to the cast.
“She gives us a little bit of autonomy with things,” said actress Nikki Stein. “She’ll have a back and forth with me, a conversation about what possibly might need to be changed, and steers me in the right direction that makes me feel like I have input, and not being told exactly what I need to do.”
Rob Lewis, who has worked alongside with Johnson in previous Kenai Performers shows, echoed Stein’s thoughts and said Johnson’s willingness to explore a role and expand on it gives her a lot of credibility.
“It’s been really nice working with her as director, and I really look to her with her experience when I was Grandpa Joe (in ‘Willy Wonka’),” Lewis said. “She’s given us a lot of guidance, but also leaned on us getting into a character, deciding what works best. It’s been a collaborative effort.”
Johnson also isn’t new to the script, having directed it with the Kenai Central High School drama program in 2003. Johnson, who worked at the school in an after-school drama club from 2006 to 2013, is mostly accustomed to teen actors, and said after years teaching teens, working with an older cast has forced her to return to her roots.
“It’s a different ballgame,” Johnson said. “But I’m comfortable with them.”
Johnson’s background in theater explains why her ability to relate to the cast, particularly for “Lost in Yonkers,” makes her an ideal candidate to direct the show. Johnson studied theater and drama at Marymount College in Kansas, as well as Kansas State University, and said her grandparents were immigrants. She said her grandmother lived with her family for several years growing up in the Midwest.
“I grew up in a house where multiple languages were spoken,” she said. “My Grandma originally lived in New Jersey, right across the river, so my mother talked like (a New Jersey accent) my whole life, and I’d come back to Kansas talking like that.
“I think because it was a bilingual house, I grew up with an ear for dialect.”
Johnson praised the work of “Yonkers” writer Neil Simon, whose work won the 1991 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and said the story of the show is relatable for her, as well as many who grew up in middle America.
“It’s timely,” Johnson said. “It deals with immigration, which I think is timely. It takes place in 1942, but it’s very relevant.”
Simon’s comedy — which opened December 1990 — follows the troubles of the Kurnitz family and their struggles to live harmoniously with each other. The patriarch, Eddie Kurnitz (played by Jamie Nelson), is desperate to pay off medical bills incurred by the death of his wife, Evelyn, and has taken the job of a traveling salesman.
As a consequence, the need for help in looking after his two young sons, Jay and Arty (played by Kaegan Koski and Brody Ireland) arises. Eddie decides to drop his sons off with his mother, Grandma Kurnitz, a German immigrant whose harsh life growing up has turned her stern and unforgiving, and their “crazy” Aunt Bella, who has a slight learning disability.
Grandma Kurnitz is played by Yvette Tappana, a peninsula theater veteran, while Aunt Bella is portrayed by Stein. Stein, a peninsula theater local who has been a regular with the performers and Kenai North Triumvirate theater since 2015, said taking on the role of Aunt Bella has been an intriguing challenge.
“She’s a little delayed and seems very sheltered,” Stein said. “In one of the scenes, her mother describes her as a child, and you can tell from interactions that her siblings coddle her a little bit, and she has the excitement of a child and gets excited about interacting with people. She comes off very ditzy and forgetful.”
The family is later visited by the brothers’ colorful uncle, Louie Kurnitz, brought to life by Rob Lewis, and Aunt Gert, depicted by AnnMarie Rudstrom.
Uncle Louie is hiding from the mob, who is chasing him in pursuit of money owed on a loan. In his fifth production with the Kenai Performers, Lewis said he’s been challenged by the role, including delivering a spot-on New Jersey accent.
“I just like the fact I get to branch out and play with the accent,” Lewis said. “There’s not a lot of opportunities to play characters, so much as play yourself being the character. With Louie, you’ve really got to get into the mind-set of Louie, to get the lines right.”
“Lost in Yonkers” opens Friday and runs three straight nights on consecutive weekends, with 7 p.m. performances on Nov. 15 and 16, as well as Nov. 22 and 23. There are also 2 p.m. showings on Nov. 17 and 24.