‘Cherry Hill,’ Md., is the hometown from hell in edgy Black Box PAC production

cherry hill review

Michael Gardiner, left, and Tristan Strasser co-star in “Cherry Hill” at the Black Box Performing Arts Center in Englewood.

“Cherry Hill,” which is currently being presented at the Black Box Performing Arts Center in Englewood, is set in the Maryland town of that name, and not in New Jersey’s Cherry Hill. And Garden Staters should breathe a sigh of relief. As depicted by playwright Matt Okin (also BBPAC’s artistic director, and this production’s director), Cherry Hill is the sort of dead-end place sensible people escape from.

The play’s central character, nice guy Bernie (Tristan Strasser), finds himself, after finishing college, back in Cherry Hill, where he grew up. He’s still pining for a high school classmate, somewhat air-headed beauty Mol (Ilana Schimmel), and though she barely knows he exists, he keeps dreaming. He’s almost paralyzed with yearning.

Meanwhile, Dierdre (Danielle MacMath), another ex-high school classmate, is in love with him, though there’s nothing nice and dreamy about it. Her attraction takes on an almost stalker-like intensity.

But that’s just the start. Bernie’s oversexed father Lawrence (Michael Gardiner) has been sleeping with Mol for years, unaware that she and Tristan know each other. AND Lawrence is also starting an affair with Mrs. Thomasino (Anne Elizabeth Miele), the widowed mother of Judd (Matty Ferrara), who is Dierdre’s boyfriend AND Bernie’s best friend, going back to their high school days. AND Dierdre tells Bernie that Judd is beating her and sleeping with his mother, though she may just be trying to win his sympathy.

Ilana Schimmel in “Cherry Hill.”

“Cherry Hill is a small town, darling,” the Sheriff, another character played by Gardiner, tells Mol. “Everyone knows everyone.”

No kidding!

Secrets are shared. Relationships are started, and dissolved. One character becomes seriously ill. There is lots of bad behavior, though Bernie’s essential goodness serves as a kind of anchor.

“Cherry Hill” is very much in line with the kind of edgy plays Black Box PAC often presents, offering plenty of laughs along with fervent, almost out-of-control emoting and raw sexuality. (There are several love-making scenes, though no nudity.) It is currently being presented in repertory with Neil LaBute’s adaptation of Georg Büchner’s uncompromisingly dark “Woyzeck” (read review here).

Okin has said that “Woyzeck” was an influence on “Cherry Hill,” and I don’t doubt that, though as I watched it, I kept on thinking of it as a wild, modern take on the 1967 Dustin Hoffman/Anne Bancroft film, “The Graduate.” Or, maybe I should say, “The Graduate” on steroids.

Remaining performances of “Cherry Hill” at the Black Box Performing Arts Center in Englewood take place at Oct. 13, 16, 21 and 23 at 8 p.m. Visit blackboxpac.com.

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