REVIEW: Burien Actors Theatre’s ‘Coney Island Christmas’ is Wonderful
by Shelli Park
The lights come up center stage on a four-poster bed piled with pillows. A young girl sits on the bed texting with friends. Enter Grandma Shirley (the amazing Vera Werre). A young Jewish girl, Clara, played by Emily Dumaran, complains to Grandma, an obviously spunky Jewish woman of East Coast origin, about how Christmas is pushed on everyone. And Kwanzaa, too? What about Chanukah???
Coney Island Christmas, written by Pulitzer-Prize winner Donald Margulies, is presented at Burien Actors Theatre as one of only three companies which will be producing the play. BAT’s iteration is directed with tenderness and humor by Rochelle Flynn and Maggie Larrick.
Through the use of photographic projections on dual screens we travel back in time to 1930’s Brooklyn (designed by Chris Reay) with Grandma Shirley and Clara. Christmas carols recorded in traditional Jewish klezmer style by the Klez Katz of Seattle, add rich texture as the hands of the clock spin us back in time. Grandma tells the story of a life-changing period in her life as a young Jewish woman.
The set, by Sharon Wilfong (who also did the scenic painting), creates a soft effect, like an old photograph. The need for lightning-fast set transitions calls for many wheeled sets. Though this can seem cumbersome between a couple of scenes as bugs are worked out, the overall effect is dreamy, helped along by very specific and effective lighting direction (Daniel Clauss).
As a girl, Shirley (Lauren Scoville) is full of life. She has a big voice, and a larger-than-life presence. Scoville has no problem filling the role. Her ability to project and emote true to character is spot on. Shirley’s biggest fan is her father who understands her nature. Shirley wants to be onstage! She has found her calling. But will Mother allow her to follow her dream?
Shirley’s mother, Mrs. Abromowitz (Eileen McCann), feels that Shirley is too loud. She doesn’t fit her idea of a good Jewish girl. And this America! The Jews have suffered, how they have suffered!! We must hold tight to tradition so that we never forget. Never forget…McCann is wonderful. She embodies the character of the long-suffering Jewish mother. Her accent and stage presence are amazing.
Christopher McDowell as the equally, if not more so, long-suffering husband bends to the word of the wife. Though he knows what is right for his daughter, it’s so hard to fight against the over-bearing manner of Mrs. Abromowitz. McDowell plays this role with grace. My favorite scene in the play is when Mr. Abromowitz and Shirley are walking home from the Thanksgiving pageant. He reminisces about being a young adult, and new immigrant to America, sneaking into theaters to experience drama on stage. He remembers one Jewish play, in particular. Shirley begs him to sing a song from the play. McDowell sings it with such authentic tenderness. I was transported.
Shirley’s drama and music teachers, Mr. Hilton (Adam Hegg), and Ms. Glace (Tamsyn Cunningham), respectively, are enthusiastic and dedicated to the creation of wonderful pageants. Their own little love story within the play adds a level of sweetness. Their relationship, though only experienced by the audience on a superficial level, adds to an evolving awareness of the depth of their characters. As their relationship deepens, so does the strength of their performance.
There is a wonderful dream sequence mid-play. Flynn and Larrick create a surreal dream-sense with light, sound, and costume/masks (Adrienne Perry). Shirley takes a trip through her unconscious as she faces her hopes, and her worst fears.
As for the “kids”…what can I say? A middle school pageant is a snapshot of awkward wonderfulness, or wonderful awkwardness. The players are hilarious in their caricatures of the American middle school student as they might have been in the 1930’s. As an ensemble they create an entertaining vehicle which delivers a comical layer of the story within a story within a story in a hilariously informative way.
In the end, the lesson is served from child to parent, then fast forward to present times, from grandmother to granddaughter: what it means to be an American during the holiday season, and practicing tolerance and an open mind will ensure a Happy Holiday season for all!!
Here are photos of the production courtesy Michael Brunk (click images to see larger versions/slideshow):
Burien Actors Theatre (formerly Burien Little Theatre) is offering an exclusive $5 off B-Town Blog Coupon to the holiday comedy, which continues through Dec. 22:
Coney Island Christmas performs Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m.
Ticket prices range from $7 to $20. Check out special opening weekend ticket deals. Bring nonperishable food for local food bank and get $2 off ticket price. All deals and discounts are exclusive of each other. For tickets or information, go online to www.burienactorstheatre.org or call 206-242-5180.
Burien Actors Theatre
14501 4th Ave SW
Burien, WA 98166
(Intersection of Fourth Avenue Southwest and Southwest 146th St., parking lot entrance on Fourth)
Directions available under “Find Us” at www.burienactorstheatre.org.
PHONE: (206) 242-5180