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Keeping up with the Kurnitzes at East

Grandma Kurnitz, played by sophomore Agatha Pokrzywinski, forces her grandson, played by Nick Van Loh, to drink a disgusting but healthy soup when he is sick. (Photo by Teri Cadeau)

Students in the East High School theater program have been "keeping up with the Kurnitzes" for the past two months as they prepare for their upcoming performance of "Lost in Yonkers."

"This play is like a little snapshot. It covers a piece of time in this dysfunctional family," said sophomore Agatha Pokrzywinski. "It's very simple yet very complex at the same time. That's the genius of Neil Simon."

The comedic drama penned by Simon won the 1991 Pulitzer prize for drama after its Broadway premiere. The play follows Jay and Arty Kurnitz, two teenagers in the 1940s who, shortly after their mother's death, are left with their unfriendly Grandma Kurnitz, played by Pokrzywinski, and mentally challenged Aunt Bella while their father works as a travelling salesman.

"We see this crazy family through Jay and Arty, as this is the first time they've been around their family. We see how controlling Grandma is of Bella and her other children, like Louie, a gangster," Pokrzywinski said. "Grandma is a difficult woman. She's had a lot of pain in her life and she's tried to teach her children so they won't experience the same pain she had."

Pokrzywinski said she's enjoyed getting into character and acting so very differently than her normal self. Instead of acting like a 16-year-old Duluthian, she has to pretend to be a strict elderly German grandmother.

"It's a lot of fun. I've always liked playing pretend and being on stage. It's a challenge, but a fun one," Pokrzywinski said.

The play has also been a fun challenge for freshman Sophie Farrow, who plays Bella, the mentally slow yet loving daughter. Much of the second act of the play revolves around Bella's attempts to break free from her mother's control and be "a real woman."

"Bella starts out the show as this woman child. She's always been told she has the mentality of a child, but she doesn't believe that and she wants to go out, get a job, get married and live. She becomes this strong individual," Farrow said.

This is Farrow's first time on stage. She's mostly stuck to sports like swimming, nordic skiing and swimming, but decided to try out for this show on a whim.

"I've learned to let go. Normally, in any other part of life, I feel I have to be very poised. But in theater, I'm learning to dive into character and let go of my self consciousness," Farrow said.

To help the students get into character and bond, directors Peter Froehlingsdorf and Greg Jones have the students play theater games and build their characters during two-to-three-hour rehearsals.

"The students have a chance to really 'play' with each other and build relationships, which for this show is so crucial. After all, this show is based around a family, as somewhat dysfunctional family but a family nonetheless," Jones said.

The biggest challenges for the students with this show, according to Jones, is learning long speeches and working around winter and spring break.

"Neil Simon provides his characters with some long speeches. And working to make sure long speeches are delivered with meaning and power is an ongoing challenge," Jones said. "But this cast is strong and dedicated to their characters and cast mates. We've seen real growth in the last two or three weeks."

Performances begin at 7 p.m. on Thursday, April 21 in the Duluth East High School auditorium.

If you go

What: Lost in Yonkers

Where: Duluth East High School auditorium, 301 N. 40th Ave. E.

When: 7 p.m. April 21-23

Tickets: $10 adults, $7 students, available at the door

Duluth East freshman Nick Van Loh and senior Noah Cornwell play brothers Jay and Arty Kurnitz in East High School's "Lost in Yonkers." (Photo submitted)

Duluth East senior Joel Atella points to freshman Nick Van Loh during a recent rehearsal of “Lost in Yonkers.” Atella plays “Uncle Louie” to Van Loh’s “Arty” in the show. (Photo by Teri Cadeau)

Teri Cadeau

Teri Cadeau is a reporter for the Budgeteer.

(218) 720-4176