Outgrowing a friendship and outliving the American dream: 'The Sunshine Boys' at Roxy's Downtown

The 1972 Neil Simon play may lack sensitivity, but a cast of Wichita theater veterans brings affection and charm to the story of two aging vaudeville comics. The production runs through June 29 at the downtown Wichita dinner theater.

Outgrowing a friendship and outliving the American dream: 'The Sunshine Boys' at Roxy's Downtown
J.R. Hurst as Willie Clark in "The Sunshine Boys" at Roxy's Downtown. Courtesy photo by Christopher Clark

Aging is a bitch — take it from me. But laughing helps, at least most of the time.

For former vaudevillian Willie Clark, laughs are a double-edged sword. They give him relief from the constant frustration, physical pain, and loneliness that comprise his life as an elderly man living in a tiny studio apartment in New York City. But comedy also represents frustration for Willie. Job opportunities hover just out of reach, and a promising comeback proves elusive. He even bears a grudge against the very guy who used to share in his monumental success, his former partner Al Lewis. 

“The Sunshine Boys,” running through June 29 at Roxy’s Downtown, explores the relationship between Willie and Al, men in their late 70s who haven’t spoken for more than a decade after 43 years of triumphantly sharing the stage. Superstar playwright Neil Simon based Lewis and Clark on the well-known vaudeville teams Weber & Fields and Smith & Dale. Before establishing himself as a legend with 30 Broadway titles and nearly as many screenplays, Simon worked throughout the 1950s as a writer for TV comedies including “Your Show of Shows,” “Caesar’s Hour,” and “The Phil Silver’s Show.” The writer’s familiarity with comedians and their large personalities is evident in “The Sunshine Boys,” especially in the role of Willie, played by J.R. Hurst. 

Ben (John Keckeisen), right, tries to reason with his uncle Willie (J.R. Hurst). Courtesy photo by Christopher Clark

Every cast member in this production has a long history in the Wichita theater community. Hurst has been performing and directing on and off for more than 45 years at a variety of area venues. He’s a convincing Willie, drawing us into the story before he even begins to speak on stage. Strong accent skills and precise comedic timing are essential in this role, and Hurst serves up both. He also drives the character with the kind of frenetic movement that might be employed by an old-school comic playing a wacky type on stage. His delivery comes from the heart, so Willie’s fist-shaking and foot-stomping reveal the old man’s aches and outrage. 

As written, Willie is so agitated that it might tempt the audience to tune out his endless complaining. Hurst does a fine job establishing a variety of levels that are distinctive and appealing, and at Thursday night’s opening performance, the mostly older audience frequently responded with sympathetic sighs and supportive murmurs. 

Rehearsal goes off track for Willie (J.R. Hurst) and Al (David Stone). Courtesy photo by Christopher Clark

The crowd was likewise well behind David Stone, who directed the production and played the role of Al Lewis. Stone is a director and actor who began his theater career at Wichita State in the 1960s. He takes a gentle approach to Al. Even mid-argument, it appears he cares more about his old partner than he lets on. This Al is a little more considerate, more aware of his own advantages than we generally see in this role. Stone’s acting and directing choices help the audience lovingly observe Willie’s plight and see just how much he is up against. Stone and Hurst do a solid job of knocking out fast-paced, gonzo sketches from their past career, although a Brooklyn or Bronx accent from Stone would have been a nice nod to the historic acts who inspired the script. 

 This strong cast incudes John Keckeisen as Willie’s nephew, Ben, a good-hearted man at the end of his patience who visits his uncle with snacks, cigars, and a copy of Variety every Wednesday. It’s tough enough to be related to Willie, but Ben is his agent as well. Keckeisen brings sincere concern, a veneer of irritation, and eventually wild-eyed frustration to the role. But Ben’s unwavering love for Willie is undeniable. Deb Campbell (Nurse) is a level-headed breath of fresh air as she lays down the law for her patient, the uncooperative Willie. Campbell and Keckeisen excel at comedy — when they launch Simon’s clever and caustic barbs, they hit the target. 

Rehearsal goes off track for Willie (J.R. Hurst) and Al (David Stone). Courtesy photo by Christopher Clark

Master carpenter Richard Shultz and painters Rick Bumgardner, Hannah Breen, and Kaycee Schulte do a nice job of transforming Roxy’s small stage into Willie’s cluttered hovel, with help from convincing props by Tracy Ciambra. Costumes by Deb Campbell successfully play up the class differences between Willie and Al.

Much of the comedy of “The Sunshine Boys” relies on the audience laughing openly at the antics — and misfortunes — of two elderly men. When it debuted on Broadway in 1972, Alzheimer’s Disease and dementia weren’t water cooler topics like they are today. Cranky, old, absent-minded men were a comic trope, and we just expected everyone over a certain age to be a forgetful clown.

Willie (J.R. Hurst) keeps an eye on his nurse (Deb Campbell). Courtesy photo by Christopher Clark

Fortunately, medical diagnosis and care have evolved, and with them our compassion toward those suffering from illness in advanced age. That doesn’t mean that we can’t still laugh at Simon’s lovingly crafted (and occasionally dated) characters, especially when they are brought to life so affectionately. 

Ultimately, the Roxy’s production of “The Sunshine Boys” shines a spotlight on the heartbreaking challenges faced by aging citizens as they outlive the American dream.

The Details

“The Sunshine Boys”
Showing through June 29 at Roxy’s Downtown, 412 1/2 E. Douglas Ave. in Wichita
Showtimes are 7 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, and 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays. 
The theater entrance is on the north side (rear) of the building. Food and drinks are available for purchase before and during the show.
Tickets are $35.71 plus fees when purchased online. Call 316-265-4400 to order by phone.

Teri Mott is a writer and actor in Wichita, Kansas, where she has covered the performing and visual arts as a critic and feature writer and worked in communications and development at nonprofit arts organizations for 40 years. She is a co-founder of the SHOUT.

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