Review: 'Handle with Care' another great addition to holiday lineup

01:16 PM, Dec 17, 2012

Actresses Sammi Cohen and Diane Chevron in JCC CenterStage's Handle with Care. (Photo provided by JCC)/

Written By Leah Stacy

There is a beautiful thing happening in local theaters this holiday season. It’s as if all the directors and producers huddled together when choosing their holiday shows and decided to offer the largest variety possible. From Geva’s classic A Christmas Carol to the reimagined classic It’s a Wonderful Life: a Live Radio Play at Blackfriars Theatre and a new take on plays altogether with Screen Plays’ The Desk Set at MuCCC, theatregoers can choose their holiday entertainment of choice.

Keeping with its record of experimentation and excellence, the Jewish Community Center’s CenterStage chose a new play, Handle with Care. Sean Daniels, director of artistic engagement and artist-at-large at Geva Theatre is directing the show (which is also slated to open off-Broadway next year).

Handle with Care has all the makings of a hit romantic comedy. A series of unfortunate events, chance meetings and ensuing awkward moments lead to an unexpected discovery. A broken heart mends. An unreliable sidekick unwittingly gets something right. A hero comes to the aid of a damsel in distress. And this ancient storyline, loved the world over, is led by a cast that’s brilliantly intuitive, likeable and young.

The story surrounds Israeli 20-something Ayelet (Sammi Cohen), who is on a tour of small town America with her grandmother (Diane Chevron). When a careless DHL deliveryman (Richard Scooter Rosenthal) loses Ayelet’s important package, he calls his Jewish friend Josh (Jamal Abdunnasir) to translate.

The tale takes place on Christmas Eve in Goodview, Va. The town is real (it’s about 16 miles from Roanoke), and makes the fictional plot line all the more believable when coupled with references to DHL, Owen Wilson and the Virginia Tech shootings.

The story is inspired by American playwright Jason Odell Williams’ experiences during a trip to Israel with his Hebrew-speaking wife, Charlotte Cohn. The language barriers and stereotypes he undoubtedly encountered provide ample situations for characters Josh and Ayelet to (albeit, hilariously) muddle through.

CenterStage Artistic Director Ralph Meranto designed the rustic motel room where the entirety of the show takes place. Mismatched woods on the walls and furniture, worn carpet and a duck taped armchair create a hole-in-the-wall ambience, while a “Virginia is for Lovers” poster over the bed provides sly foreshadowing.

Local actress Sammi Cohen plays Ayelet, the only person besides Cohn to play the role. In addition to learning her lines, Cohen, who doesn’t speak Hebrew, spent hours learning translations and pronunciations used in the show. Her interpretation of the Israeli foreigner is at once enchanting and childlike, creating a palpable chemistry between her and Abdunnasir.

There isn’t a single weak link in the cast — they’re all perfectly fitted for their roles. Chevron, a local stage veteran, is almost too stunning as Safta, with her leopard shrug, flawless posture and flaming red bouffant, but her expert use of emotions and knowledge of stage space makes it unbelievable to imagine anyone else in the role. Rosenthal, who plays the bumbling DHL deliveryman Terrence, is the most fun of the bunch, dancing during set changes. He quickly became the crowd favorite during Sunday’s performance.

And Abdunnasir fills the Chukka boots of character Josh immaculately. His journey from the brokenhearted man who hates George Bailey and practices “religion lite” to a tenderhearted, hopeful lover is the kind of transformation that’s refreshing in a romantic comedy, and especially during the holidays.

Though it’s set at Christmas, Handle with Care holds an important lesson for any time of the year by showing love does not judge by race or age. It is the universal language that every heart speaks, and it will find a way to be heard.