Neil Simon's 'Sunshine Boys' opens at Fire Hall Theatre

From left; Russ Schonmeier (as Al Lewis), Wendy Swerdlow Pederson as Willie Clark's niece and Rob Howard (as Willie Clark) perform in the Firehall Theatre production of "The Sunshine Boys." Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

The Fire Hall Theatre opens its 2019-20 season with a comedy, Neil Simon’s “The Sunshine Boys,” this weekend.

It’s the story of a couple of vaudeville performers who, back in the day, were a popular comedic team, but now they can’t stand each other and haven’t spoken for 11 years.

In this love-hate relationship, Rob Howard and Russ Schonmeier play the Sunshine Boys, Willy Clark and Al Lewis, respectively, who, after 43 years, parted ways on unfriendly terms.

They’ve been offered a chance to perform in a reunion show for a CBS-TV special, resurrecting their “Lewis and Clark” act.

Clarks’ niece, a talent agent, is trying to convince the pair to set aside their differences, accept the offer and rehearse the sketch.


“Her uncle won’t give her any leeway,” said Patrick Pearson, the play’s director. “It’s fun watching her seethe with frustration.”

The aging comedians “are having a hard time because of their 11-year-long rift,” Pearson said.

The audience members will enjoy the “comedy banter between Al Lewis and Willie Clark,” he said. “They take jabs at each other, poking back and forth.”

The comedy escalates in the doctor’s sketch, when things are going terribly wrong, he said.

“Each one of the actors brings something different to the table that just makes me laugh. Someone will do something unexpected that’s really funny and I’ll say, ‘Yes, keep that in.’ ”

Overall, the story “is about burying the hatchet,” Pearson said. “(The message is) don’t hold grudges -- and bury the hatchet, especially if you can’t remember exactly why you’re arguing.”

Simon’s humor is universal, Pearson said.

“One of the beauties of Neil Simon is that he takes everyday situations that everyone is familiar with and makes them funny,” he said.


The play was produced as a movie in 1975, with Walter Matthau and George Burns, and later as a made-for-TV movie with Woody Allen and Peter Falk, and Sarah Jessica Parker as the niece, Pearson said.

Seasoned performers

Fire Hall Theatre-goers will probably recognize Howard from his portrayal of the hard-charging Col. Nathan Jessep in “A Few Good Men,” assuming the role Jack Nicholson played opposite Tom Cruise in the film by the same name.

“The Sunshine Boys” marks Howard’s eighth appearance on the Fire Hall stage, said Kathy Coudle-King, executive director.

For Howard, “this part is so different,” said Pearson. “He’s not so menacing, so very dramatic. He shows that he can do comedy, too.”

Another veteran Fire Hall performer, Wendy Swerdlow Pederson, is playing Clark’s niece, Ben Silverman, in a gender-swapping role that had to be approved by representatives of the Simon estate, Pearson said.

Pederson has appeared in more than 20 Fire Hall productions in the past 30 years, most recently in “Fiddler on the Roof,” Coudle-King said.

Other performers are Sarah Sletten, Tina Wilkening, Richard Millspaugh, Nicole Quam and Casey Pearson. Stage manager is Diana Chabai-Booker. Light design is by Pearson and Kara Kerr; sound design by Howard.

In presenting this comedic play, the challenge for the actors is “having to go slightly over the top, without being 'cartoony,’ ” said Pearson, who’s directing his fourth play at the Fire Hall. “There’s a tendency to go way overboard.”


The production includes projected images, sound effects and an original soap opera, which features each of the show’s actors on TV, he said.

Honoring Simon

Choosing to perform “The Sunshine Boys” is meant to honor Simon, the renowned American playwright who died last year, said Pearson, adding it was last performed at the Fire Hall in 2001.

The show is intended to “make us laugh; it’s not too dramatically heavy,” Pearson said. “With what’s going on in the world right now, we need something to make us laugh. It’s escapism.”

Simon is widely regarded as one of the most successful, prolific and performed playwrights in the world, said Coudle-King.

In addition to “Lost in Yonkers,” which won a Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize, his plays and musicals also include “Barefoot in the Park,” “The Odd Couple,” “Sweet Charity,” “Plaza Suite,” “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” “Broadway Bound,” “Rumors” and “The Goodbye Girl.”

The show is co-produced with Valley Senior Living.

“We couldn’t do it without them,” said Coudle-King.

If you go


What: “The Sunshine Boys,” by Neil Simon

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Sept. 20-21; Thursdays-Saturdays, Sept. 26-28 and Oct. 3-5; and 2 p.m. Sundays, Sept. 22 and 29

Where: Fire Hall Theatre, 412 Second Ave. N.

Tickets: $17 for adults; $14 for seniors, students, military with ID; and $12 each, for groups of 12 or more. Visit online or, to avoid fees, visit or call the Chester Fritz Auditorium box office, (701) 777-4090.


Russ Schonmeier (as Al Lewis,) and Rob Howard (as Willie Clark) play former vaudeville comedians who have been on the "outs" for years; Clark's niece Wendy Swerdlow Pederson (as Ben Silverman, in a gender-swapped role) tries to reunite the aging comedic team one last time for a gig she's arranged with CBS. The Sunshine Boys is written by the prolific American playwright Neil Simon. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Pamela Knudson is a features and arts/entertainment writer for the Grand Forks Herald.

She has worked for the Herald since 2011 and has covered a wide variety of topics, including the latest performances in the region and health topics.

Pamela can be reached at or (701) 780-1107.
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