Coney Island Christmas Artfully Intertwines Tradition and Faith
in a Delightful Tale for All Ages
The second show of Gallery Players’ 67th season, Coney Island Christmas, opens on December 12 and runs through December 20, 2015 in The Roth-Resler Theatre at The Jewish Community Center, 1125 College Avenue, Columbus, Ohio.
Inspired by The Loudest Voice, a short story by Grace Paley, Coney Island Christmas is the fifth play written by playwright Donald Margulies who also wrote the Pulitzer Prize winning play Dinner with Friends in 2000. Co-directed by April Olt and Sonda Staley, this holiday show will delight audience members of all ages and all faiths. Themes of nostalgia, immigration and identity that transcend religions and traditions are explored as a young Jewish girl named Shirley Abramowitz is cast in her school’s Christmas pageant much to her immigrant parents’ exasperation. As Shirley, now much older, recounts the memorable story to her great-granddaughter, the play captures a timeless and universal tale of the Jewish immigrant experience during the holidays. The play switches between present day Bexley, Ohio and 1935 Brooklyn, New York during The Great Depression. The scene is replete with the sights, sounds and smells of Coney Island carnival barkers, roller coasters, sour pickles, gefilte fish, potato latkes.
“I love that this production explores generational relationships as well as a shared experience of family and holiday traditions for all people. This is an important play and theme, both for this time of year and for the times that exist in America today,” said Co-Director April Olt. “This play bridges the gap between what it means to be an American and what it means to appreciate and celebrate your family history and the traditions and values of your faith.”
Describing the symbiotic relationships in the show, Olt said, “Most of the actors in this show play various roles; therefore, it is amazing to watch the transformation process of each of the actors. We have created a multi-generational family in this cast. It is a joy to watch how the company works as a group throughout the process. We have become an instant family bound by a shared experience.”
Olt has directed productions for over 20 years. For the past nine years, she has directed holiday and Christmas productions in Columbus. Her last show at Gallery Players was Other Desert Cities. Having worked in Chicago, New York City and in Columbus at many area theatres, she is currently the Artistic Director/Theatre Director at Grandview Heights High School.
“This is a memory play about the immigrant experience and assimilation. Having been in public school in the 40s and 50s, I strongly identify with Young Shirley and her family’s conflicting feelings about participating in a Christmas celebration,” said Laurie Alexander who plays Shirley. “You know the lament of my generation, how we had to walk five miles to school in the snow without shoes? Well, the younger generation can get a feeling for what it was like in the old days (1935), the struggles and happiness we experienced, some very different, and some the same as here and now. Our two directors spend a lot of time explaining the old days to our 12 young actors. I think for any young person experiencing a culture conflict, this play will strengthen their convictions.”
Alexander, a veteran director and actor of many Gallery Players shows, has appeared in productions with Actors Theatre, Women at Play and Standing Room Only Theatre. “I usually direct the Family/Chanukah show at this time, but every so often I like to go back onstage, to remember what it’s like to be an actor. It sharpens my sensitivities as a director,” said Alexander.
Rose Clubok plays the role of the younger Shirley. Her character yearns to participate in plays and “American,” non-Jewish activities at her school, while her mother, Mrs. Abramowitz, played by Kate Willis, feels that doing so compromises their faith. She bemoans that the young girl’s involvement will have a consequence that, “…makes our children forget who they are and where they came from…” and have irreversible, far-reaching ramifications. Her husband, Mr. Abramowitz, played by Brian Belair, gently cajoles his wife and tries to convince her that their daughter’s request to play a role in a Christmas pageant is one of an innocent child.
Clubok, has participated in productions through CATCO is Kids, as well as in two Purim spiels at Congregation Tifereth Israel. Most recently, she portrayed a ghost girl in the Shadowbox Live production of The Tenshu.
“My character, like me, is really into drama. I like it that at various points through the play, she plays diverse roles, at one point emulating her own favorite child actress,” said Clubok. “This show really makes you think about the balance between one’s identity as a Jew and as an American. At school recently, we discussed the question, ‘Are you an American Jew or a Jewish American?’ This show demonstrates the immediacy of that question for our immigrant ancestors.”
After a 30-year hiatus from performing, Rick Cohen auditioned for last year’s production of Les Miserables on a dare and found himself in front of an audience once again. Upon doing research for Coney Island Christmas he said, “What I found was a wonderful story that in today’s world speaks volumes to tolerance and understanding. The conflicts that existed in this 1930’s setting are conflicts that still exist today not only for the Jewish people but all people of faith. How does one keep their identity in the face of an ever-changing world?” Like his character, Mr. Hilton, the enthusiastic drama teacher, Cohen especially enjoys working with the children in the cast.
Clara, Shirley’s great-great granddaughter to whom the story is told, is played by Nora Butter. Audience members will also meet Miss Glace, the reserved music teacher, played by Laura Crone, who together with Mr. Hilton, the enthusiastic drama teacher cast Young Shirley in the pageant.
In the end, Margulies’ characters show that the universal themes of joy and acceptance truly transcend religions and traditions.
“I hope that this production inspires us to be courageous to seek to find love, inspiration, and value in our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents; to understand, appreciate, and celebrate the diversity that surrounds us not only in Columbus, but around the world; to celebrate and hold true to our traditions, values, and faith; but also to understand and appreciate the traditions and values of all of those in our community and in our world,” said Olt.
To purchase tickets or learn more about the show, visit www.jccgalleryplayers.org or call the box office at 614-231-2731. Show times are: 8 p.m. on Saturday December 12, 2:30 p.m. on Sunday, December 13, 7:30 p.m. on Thursday December 17, 8 p.m. on Saturday December 19 and 2:30 p.m. on Sunday December 20.
Tickets cost are: $20, $18 for seniors, $15 for JCC members; $13 for senior members; $10 for children (17 years and under) or students with valid ID, and $10/ticket for groups of 10 or more.