Local playwright pens musical journey

Jerry Perna, who lives in Port Richmond, spent many years writing “The Music You Remember,” in which he also stars. It plays at The Adrienne through October. MIKALA JAMISON / STAR PHOTO

The writer Brander Matthews said that the art of the playwright is much like the art of the architect. A plot, he said, has to be built just as a house is built — “story after story.”

Layers, then, are crucial; a piece of theatre isn’t a one-dimensional presentation.

That’s at least how Port Richmond playwright Jerry Perna thinks of it, he attests. He’s written and stars in “The Music You Remember,” a play running through October at The Adrienne Theater that celebrates the popular music of the 60s, but has deeper messages beyond what Perna calls “campy fun.”

“As a writer, it didn’t interest me to just write a revue [of 60s music],” Perna told Star at his Campbell Square-adjacent home earlier this month. “I wanted to build a story about how music affected him.”

The “him” being the play’s main character, Paul Diolio, played by Perna himself. “The Music You Remember,” directed by Benjamin Lloyd, is focused on the struggles of Diolio, a professor of music who loses his tenure, his girlfriend and his car, all in one day.

The down-on-his-luck Diolio is joined by young teaching assistant Sally to teach his final class. Sally, played by Kristen Bailey, ends up possessing a more supernatural quality that leads Diolio on a “kaleidoscopic journey of memory.”

That journey includes on-stage projections of clips from songs and films from the 60s era.

“I wanted to engage the senses,” Perna said. “If you’re under 65, it’s all about movies and TV.”

“The Music You Remember” finds its layers, then, in more than just a fond look at popular music of the past. It’s also cautionary tale, Perna said, about the dangers of nostalgia.

“The technological innovations in the past 30 years have been greater than those in the past 250,” he said. “There’s a big segment of the population, a lot of folks my age and older, who are made uneasy by that.”

Perna explained that in his beloved home in Port Richmond, there’s an Old-World sensibility among the hearty Polish population. While he’s much appreciative of it, he said, he also wants this play to be a reminder to folks not to get stuck in the past.

“Don’t get too deep into how great the ‘old days’ were,” he said. “They might not have been so great for everyone — African Americans, women … now, with greater diversity, there’s a greater opportunity for learning.”

Indeed, the show doesn’t focus only on the music of the 60’s — Perna, makes comparisons between pop music icons of that time to those of today. There’s mention of both Burt Bacharach and Justin Bieber.

A little something for everyone, eh?

The play, Perna said, does pull inspiration from his own life, of course, mainly in his attachment to music and the actors he wanted to emulate in his own career.

“I remember watching movies and TV in the 60s, the channel 10 afternoon movies … they were incredible inspirations,” Perna said.

“I grew up with exposure to lots of different types of music, [from] rock, to Motown, to the Beach Boys. I listened to the Top 40,” he continued.

Perna, who grew up in Lansdowne, became involved with theatre when he was about 14 years old, he said. He’s always worked in theatre in one way or another, and right now, it’s his full-time job.

He’s worked with big names — he once worked on a film with Mickey Rooney, and had a small part in “Silver Linings Playbook,” alongside Bradley Cooper.

At the heart of his current work, though, is how music affects the personal journey of humans.

“This [Diolio] character is someone trying to find some emotional solace in music,” Perna said. “The music a man hears at age 5 stays with him for the rest of his life.”

At his home, Perna read aloud a few scenes from the play. One seems to most aptly describe the sentiment of Diolio, and perhaps Perna himself:

“A lost song really is a tragedy.”

“The Music You Remember” will run Oct. 3, Oct. 8, 10, and 18 at 7:30 p.m., as well as Oct. 5, 13 and 19 at 2 p.m., Oct. 5 at 8 p.m., and Oct. 13 and 20 at 7 p.m., all at The Adrienne, 2030 Sansom St. There will be a special Industry Night performance on Oct. 14 at 9 p.m.

For tickets ($20-$30) and information, call 800–838–3006, or visit www.whitepinesproductions.org/MYRLK.