By Richard Ades
I always wondered how Sandy Cohen felt about playing the Virgin Mary.
Sandy was one of the two Jewish girls who were in my class in elementary school. She played Mary in our annual Christmas pageant, this being back in the days when most people thought it was perfectly normal to hold a religious drama in a public school.
Then again, most people weren’t Jewish. I assume Sandy wanted to play the plum part or she wouldn’t have tried out for it, but how did she feel about our school hosting this seasonal Christian event while ignoring Hanukkah? For that matter, how did her parents feel?
Such questions occurred to me after seeing Gallery Players’ charming production of Coney Island Christmas. Written by Donald Margulies (The Loman Family Picnic), it’s about a Jewish girl who lands an even bigger role in her own school’s Christmas pageant: Jesus Christ.
Cursed with an obnoxiously loud voice and low self-esteem, Shirley Abromowitz (Rose Clubok) is thrilled when drama teacher Mr. Hilton (Rick Cohen) asks her to play the adult Jesus, who serves as the pageant’s narrator. Her supportive father (Brian A. Belair) also is thrilled for her, but her mother (Kate Willis), not so much. An immigrant who came to America to escape anti-Semitism, she sees the play as yet another form of persecution.
The family dispute develops in Brooklyn in the 1940s and is presented in the form of a memory that the adult Shirley (Laurie Alexander) relates to her young granddaughter, Clara (Nora Butter).
Co-directors April Olt and Sonda Staley make good use of the Jewish Community Center’s big stage, allowing the story to hop from place to place, and from the present to the past, without skipping a beat. More importantly, they make good use of their large cast, particularly its younger members.
Rose Clubok’s Shirley seldom sounds as loud as she’s described, but she’s a lovable and compelling heroine. Other youngsters give unforced performances as her fellow students, which makes it all the funnier when they overact their way through Mr. Hilton’s Thanksgiving and Christmas productions.
The adult cast members—including Laura Crone as music teacher Mrs. Glace—are equally on target. Mr. and Mrs. Abromowitz’s squabbling scenes do tend to drag a bit, but the eventual emotional payoff is worth the wait.
Alexander holds it all together as the adult Shirley, who both narrates and plays a supporting role in the extended flashback to her childhood. As the granddaughter to whom she tells the tale—a role that mostly consists of observing quietly—Nora Butter displays poise and confidence.
Jon Baggs’s scenery, Debbie Hamrick’s costumes and Jarod Wilson’s sound and lighting design are all unobtrusively effective.
My only real quibble with Margulies’s comedy is that it could be more sympathetic to Mrs. Abromowitz. She comes across as an unfeeling parent when she tries to keep Shirley out of the Christmas pageant, but she really is right that the school shouldn’t be favoring one religion over another.
As a memory play, though, Coney Island Christmas captures the spirit of a time when few questioned this lack of division between church and state. It also celebrates children like Shirley who were strong enough to survive the era with their identities intact.
Gallery Players will present Coney Island Christmas through Dec. 20 at the Jewish Community Center, 1125 College Ave., Columbus. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes. Tickets are $20 ($15 for JCC member), $18 for ages 60-plus ($13 for JCC members), $10 students/children. 614-231-2731 or www.jccgalleryplayers.org.