This story is part of a series of articles spotlighting Thespian troupes and the shows that earned them 2020 International Thespian Festival main stage recognition.

TROUPE 3964 of Raymore-Peculiar High School in Missouri has an ITF main stage tradition dating back to 1995, when they performed The Diviners. They subsequently brought Broadway Bound (also by Neil Simon, 1998), Sylvia (2002), and The Foreigner (2012) to the ITF main stage.

Ella Schnake as Bella and Spencer Barr as Louie in Lost in Yonkers.

Ella Schnake as Bella and Spencer Barr as Louie in Lost in Yonkers. Photo by Kay Connelly.

STORY

In 1942, Arty, 13, and his brother Jay, 15, lose their mother to cancer. To pay the family’s medical debt, their emotionally sensitive father, Eddie, takes a job selling scrap metal across the southern United States. To do that, he needs Grandma Kurnitz to watch the boys.

Despite running a candy store and looking after their effusively sweet, mentally challenged Aunt Bella, Grandma is a cold, domineering woman. Aunt Bella, who proves a nurturing if childlike figure, confides in Arty and Jay about her plans to marry an illiterate cinema usher — and reveals that Grandma has stashed $15,000 somewhere in the apartment.

The dysfunction grows once Uncle Louie shows up with a mysterious black satchel and a gun. Louie, a small-time mafia bagman and tough-guy foil to their timid father, provides the boys lessons in “moxie” and a small hush-money allowance.

As they comb Grandma’s apartment in search of hidden cash, Arty and Jay instead discover more about their Aunt Gertrude, who rarely speaks or shows her face, as well as Grandma’s painful past growing up Jewish in an increasingly hostile Germany.

By the end of Arty and Jay’s stay, Grandma’s motto, “You don’t survive in this world without being like steel,” is tested by Aunt Bella’s desire to finally claim her womanhood, as well as the boys’ coming of age.

Cast of the Raymore-Peculiar High School production of Lost in Yonkers
Spencer Barr, Larissa Wratney, Aidan Martel, Denton Meehan, and Ella Schnake in the Raymore-Peculiar High School production of Lost in Yonkers. Photo by Kay Connelly.

BACKGROUND

Despite dominating popular Broadway comedy for decades, Neil Simon was surprised to win the 1991 Pulitzer Prize for Lost in Yonkers. In an interview for the William Inge Center for the Arts in Independence, Kansas, Simon said he “thought they always considered me a light comedy playwright.”

This might seem an odd statement for a man who famously said, “My view is ‘How sad and funny life is.’ I can’t think of a humorous situation that does not involve some pain.” True to form, Simon’s Lost in Yonkers puts a comedic lens on the disrupted development of four grown children by a hardened mother whose aim in life, as Simon told the Inge Center, “is to survive, not to live.”

Lost in Yonkers premiered at the Center for the Performing Arts in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, on December 31, 1990. It moved to Broadway in February 1991. In addition to the Pulitzer, it was nominated that year for five Tony Awards, winning best play, best actress (Mercedes Ruehl as Bella), best featured actress (Irene Worth as Grandma Kurnitz), and best featured actor (Kevin Spacey as Louie).

In 1993, Lost in Yonkers was adapted into a film directed by Martha Coolidge and starring Richard Dreyfuss as Louie, with Mercedes Ruehl and Irene Worth reprising their Broadway roles.

Simon, who died in August 2018 at age 91, was the most commercially successful American playwright of the second half of the 20th century. He was known for penning relatable, if dysfunctional, family dynamics and cutting one-liners in volumes of dramatic comedies, including Barefoot in the ParkThe Odd Couple, and Brighton Beach Memoirs.

The Jewish sons of a traveling garment salesman growing up in the Great Depression, Simon and his brother Danny were often looked after by relatives. Although Simon claimed not to have modeled adult characters such as Grandma Kurnitz and Aunt Bella after his own family members, Lost in Yonkers took inspiration from and may provide literary insight into the boyhood of one of America’s most popular and prolific playwrights.

Alec Heriford as Eddie and Ella Schnake as Bella in Lost in Yonkers.
Alec Heriford as Eddie and Ella Schnake as Bella in Lost in Yonkers. Photo by Kay Connelly.

TROUPE 3964’S PRODUCTION

Lost in Yonkers presents a challenge even for veteran performers, according to Todd Schnake, director of Troupe 3964 at Raymore-Peculiar High School. “The show requires actors to smoothly switch from the comedic to the dramatic within a given scene. The emotional stakes are also incredibly high and require both raw and incredibly restrained emotion.” This, he said, “requires a nuanced understanding of why people do the things they do.”

Into this psychological complexity, Neil Simon built a lens for younger audiences, Schnake said. “We see this world through the eyes of Jay and Arty, and I thought that would be a way to look at some fairly dramatic things that resonate with a Thespian audience.”

Although the narrative perspective makes Yonkers the boys’ story, the action revolves mostly around the relationship between two women: Aunt Bella and Grandma Kurnitz. According to the Troupe 3964 actors who portrayed these characters, both are easy to overplay.

“It was difficult to find how to play an old person but not play it too old or cartoony,” said senior Abigail Ball, who portrays Grandma. “Anyone can play this old grandma, but I didn’t want to play it like that because then I’m just making a joke of a person who shouldn’t be made a joke of. I found the easiest way to portray the older characteristics was not to focus on the age but to focus on the injuries and experiences.” Ball grounded her acting in Grandma’s accent and physical details such as her hand movements and limp.

Senior Ella Schnake says it was difficult to land Simon’s intended humor without diminishing the depth or realism of Aunt Bella. “The biggest challenge was how to capture Bella in a really true way. I wanted my portrayal to be comedic, but her purpose is not comedy, so I had to figure out how to hook into this character, understand how her processing is different from my natural processing, and use that to find comedy in her natural antics,” Ella said.

To make Aunt Bella’s gestures and movements more authentic, Ella researched “what natural small tics may portray to the audience how she is different in the way she handles the world around her — and how her relationship with Grandma influences those tics. So maybe she makes more small movements with her hands when Grandma is around because she feels some degree of anxiety.”

This same attention to detail helped technical director Karla Penechar design the visual elements of the show. “In our season, we do a lot of sets that are non-realistic, so it’s fun sometimes to do an ultra-realistic set of a time period,” she said.

For this single-location play — most of the action takes place in the family’s main living area, with access to the kitchen, dining area, and bedrooms — Penechar poured over images of early 20th century interior design, from lamps and area rugs to picture frames and doilies.

“One of the most important and challenging pieces for Lost in Yonkers was the script requirement of a sofa bed,” Penechar said. “In a realistic setting, I want the furniture not only to be as accurate as possible and to fit the characters that own it but also to represent the audience’s perception of what is accurate, whether true or not. For example, in my research, I found very few sofas upholstered with printed fabric, but I know audiences have an impression that certain florals feel vintage and grandmotherly.”

Penechar incorporated a similar floral print through wallpaper. Since some of the characters grew up in this home, she had to “age” the walls and woodwork through a scenic painting technique that gives them “tone and depth, to indicate a space the characters have lived in over time.”

Denton Meehan as Jay, Spencer Barr as Louie, and Aidan Martel as Arty in the Raymore-Peculiar High School production of Lost in Yonkers.
Denton Meehan as Jay, Spencer Barr as Louie, and Aidan Martel as Arty in the Raymore-Peculiar High School production of Lost in Yonkers. Photo by Kay Connelly.

In a way, actors Ball and Ella also had to “age” their relationship, both on and offstage, to capture the deep familiarity of cohabitating family members. “These characters know each other incredibly well, so to find the nuance in how they respond to each other, Abby and I also needed to be really comfortable interacting in real life and carry that onto the stage,” said Ella. The two began spending more time together outside of rehearsals.

Those efforts paid off, in performance and friendship. “Especially on the [Kansas City] Music Hall stage [for the Missouri Thespian Conference] — performing in front of such a huge audience was overwhelming, but what would make me feel safe was performing those scenes with Ella because we had formed that great bond,” Ball said. “If I was ever feeling uncomfortable, I would look at Ella and feel comforted like, OK, this is a safe space.”

For Schnake, developing great bonds through Yonkers is almost a tradition. “I had the opportunity to [direct] this show [at the school] in the mid-90s when it was fairly new. I like the fact that it examines issues of family and how we treat each other — that connectedness we need, and what happens when we don’t have that,” he said.

Like many theatre educators, Schnake said his students “often feel like family, but this group in particular has because they went to school with my daughter [Ella] and were involved with various groups she was part of. I’ve literally watched them grow up.” That sense of connection got Schnake thinking about Yonkers again. Once he realized he had the student talent, and knowing Penechar’s fondness for the film, Schnake decided to revisit the material and “examine the issues the play brings forward with the perspective of someone who has now raised his own family.”

During rehearsals, Schnake caught up with Jayme Overstreet — a former Thespian troupe director — who played Aunt Bella when he first directed the show at Raymore-Peculiar High School more than two decades ago. According to Schnake, Overstreet went on to play Grandma Kurnitz in a college production. She and the Schnakes have remained in touch over the years, and she returned to Raymore-Peculiar to speak to the 2020 cast.

Overstreet provided Ball “a lot of insight into Grandma. She helped me think about what Grandma would be thinking behind the scenes, the fact that she’s constantly in pain because her foot was crushed when she was 12, and she’s never even taken an aspirin for it.” Ball realized how this hidden pain and other factors contribute to Grandma’s severe personality. “She’s angry about the pain, and now she’s angry about these boys that are here, asking to invade her home.” But beneath that, Ball said, “the love she feels also motivates her anger — Grandma has been through so much and did this all for her family.”

For Ella, chatting with Overstreet “showed me how someone else cared about this character,” which helped her develop a more authentic love for the family, despite their flaws. “We needed to be able to fall in love with the story we were telling to really do it justice.”

Ball believes that even old, immovable Grandma begins to soften by the end of the play. But regardless, said Ball, one thing’s certain: “We definitely became a family working together.”

The cast of the Raymore-Peculiar High School production of Lost in Yonkers
The cast of the Raymore-Peculiar High School production of Lost in Yonkers. Photo by Kay Connelly.
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