Miriam Reid, a junior at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School, has always belonged in the theater.
At 16, the twee, pixie-haired and bespectacled Harrisburg, Pa., native sporting a purple bowtie, has already been acting for nearly a decade.
Having performed in no less than 13 musicals via the JCC in Harrisburg (which puts on two musicals a year), Reid is diving in head first to nonmusical theater production, starring as the appropriately fey Bella Kurnitz in Neil Simon’s 1991 Pulitzer Prize-winning “Lost in Yonkers.”
As this year’s fall play, “Yonkers” runs on Tuesday, Nov. 15 and Thursday, Nov. 17 at the campus’s Rosen Arts Center/Mintzes Theatre from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.
“Originally, it was the music,” Reid said about the theater realm that so completely imbued her at such a precociously young age. “I love singing. But then I got really into straight theater, because it’s a stage, right? I have so many memories involving theater that it sort of became ingrained in my being.”
Reid has “always sung,” adding that she only received professional singing lessons (“a gift from my bubbie and zayde”) for a year. She would like to pursue music as a full-time career — also playing the piano, something she hopes will lead to her involvement in a band or professional work in the musical theater.
“This is something I’m good at and something I like doing,” Reid said. “It’s always nice when those two things overlap. I like that the theater is a place where I can shine … however much that may sound incredibly egotistical. But there it is!”
Though she said she feels particularly comfortable on stage, Reid detailed how she challenged herself to bolster her not unsubstantial performance skills, which are apparent at first blush during an emotionally intense rehearsal of “Yonkers” on the late afternoon of Monday, Oct. 31.
Reid’s Bella is one component of a, for better or worse, dysfunctional family living together in Simon’s 1942 Jewish New York enclave.
In the original play, she’s described as “simpleminded” and “childlike,” but BT’s theatrical artistic director and instructor running this show, Diane Smith, said, in the contemporary idiom, Bella would be considered “on the spectrum” or autistic.
“Miriam has worked very, very hard on her character,” Smith said. “We have talked a lot about Bella, and Miriam has done a lot of character study. She does some things on stage like nervous movements with her fingers and stuff that she brought in herself and which I told her to keep doing.”
Smith and Reid both said that the latter drew a great deal on both a Broadway performance of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” the group saw last summer together in which the protagonist is autistic and personal research into various persons Reid knows who live with the aberration.
“I feel like I really needed to do the particular mannerisms justice,” Reid said, confessing she had in fact been “a little wary” about making the portrayal too much of a “caricature,” as she put it.
“I don’t want to make that part of her personality into a joke,” Reid said. “Because it’s not.”
It’s one element of the emotional intensity of the play that Reid and her fellow cast members embody so poignantly as evidenced by said rehearsal only days before the show and after a mere six weeks of hardcore, dedicated preparation.
“This show does have some fantastic characters,” Smith said.
One such additional character is “Uncle Louie,” played with an effortless panache and sangfroid by 17-year-old BT senior Benjamin Balfanz.
“I really like him [Uncle Louie],” Balfanz said of his nuanced and slightly anti-hero gangster role. “I think he’s the funniest character. He may not be the most complex, but he has the biggest personality. I think he’s the most fun to play.”
Balfanz hadn’t read or seen “Yonkers” before taking on the part, but he said that he has since seen the 1993 film adaptation starring Mercedes Ruehl as Bella and Richard Dreyfuss as Louie.
I have so many memories involving theater that it sort of became ingrained in my being.” — Miriam Reid
“It was pretty good,” Balfanz said. “I appreciated how Louie was [featured] on the cover instead of any other character. That was nice.”
Already having an idea of what the character would be in his mind before screening the film, Balfanz said he wasn’t impacted too crucially by Dreyfuss’ performance. Instead, the trope of the “gangster accent” he employs throughout the performance likely came from a cartoon whose name he couldn’t conjure up but which led him to feel, “Yup, that’s the voice.”
“That was basically right, and then I just kept practicing it more and more,” Balfanz said. “And it kind of developed by itself.”
Working on a play that is both a period piece and challenges the young actors to present themselves in ways that require such dogged development as Reid’s and Balfanz’s is exactly what 14-year-old freshman Coby Ziv — playing lead Jay Kurnitz — said is one of the most valuable aspects of working in the theater.
“I used to be shy, but once I got into acting, I was able to step outside of my comfort zone, and then I was able to do that socially away from the theater as well,” Ziv said.
“I don’t know how to explain it,” Ziv added. “But I like acting because it allows me to be someone I’m not. Acting in general has really impacted my life; it’s fun, and I would encourage anyone who has thought about it to follow their dreams.”
When asked what he hopes the audience will get out of the show, Ziv simply beamed with an endearingly pat answer: “I hope they like it!”
“There’s no particular way I want [the audience] to be affected by [the show],” said Balfanz. “But I do want them to feel something. I don’t know: maybe they’ll cry at the end. I hope they experience multiple emotions. I hope it’s not, ‘Well, that was the school play.’ I hope they’re actually affected by it.”
“Lost in Yonkers” runs Tuesday, Nov. 15 and Thursday, Nov. 17 from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School’s Rosen Arts Center/Mintzes Theatre, 3300 Old Court Road. For tickets and more information, bethtfiloh.com/bttheater.