BWW Review: Anoka's Lyric Arts Uncovers a Child's Heart in A CONEY ISLAND CHRISTMAS
On stage at Anoka's Lyric Arts, A Coney Island Christmas presents a child's heartfelt dreams to its audiences for the holiday season. One of two theatrical presentations alternating at the venue in December, this play features a flashback to 1930's New York, in the midst of the Great Depression, where Jewish Hanukah meets the Christian Christmas through warm nostalgia.
Written by the Pulitzer Prize winning Donald Margulies, A Coney Island Christmas was commissioned by Gilbert Cates, founder of the famous Geffen Playhouse. Based on Grace Paley's short story, "The Loudest Voice," the play's accomplished pedigree produces a story first set in contemporary times when Grandmother Shirley Ambramowitz (Mary Cutler) reminisces to her sick granddaughter Clara, (Gabriella Rosen). Grandma Shirley then enthusiastically retells how her own childlike dreams came true participating in a school Nativity pageant to inspire Clara.
Grandmother Shirley humorously relates her history of being a young Jewish girt asked to play Jesus in her school's December program. While her father Mr.Abramowitz (Anthony R. Johnson) approves of his daughter's dream to act in the play-chosen because Shirley has the loudest voice-her mother (Shana Eisenberg) vehemently disapproves of her daughter's assimilation into American, and and alternate religious, culture. Especially when the performing schedule interferes with the family's celebration of their own "festival of lights," which began when the Jewish people wish to honor their own culture when their lamp oil miraculously burned for eight days on a day's worth of oil to win a battle.
This large cast defines these December memories with a young Shirley, a stellar Lily Wangerin, as this young girl struggles with her dreams, her heritage, her parents' reality and. their wishes. Her father, Johnson, provides a tender heart, to the production and those in his family while Shirley's mother, Eisenberg, recreate a loving but ambivalent parent about her daughter acting as Jesus. Although, as Mr. Ambramovitz explains, "Jesus was Jewish."
Scenic Designer Leazah Behrens recreates the step back in time set seamlessly under Elena Gianetti's direction. Supporting performances by Shirley's music teacher,Lydia Wildes' Miss Glacé and her own schoolroom teacher, Michael Conroy's Mr. Hilton, present alternate perspectives to the Abramowitz's family dilemma. Humor and poignancy meld along with the pure joy of being a child, memories that even royalty display as England's young Prince George recently performed in his schools Nativity pageant. Childhood recasts these events in light of youthful acceptance and enthusiasm, where those iconic Christmas pageants of the past capture an innocence that resonates in 2018.
The delightful play also remembers these Jewish refugees, along with others who immigrated from Europe and traveled to America to discover a better life.. Families who were struggling along with everyone else in New York during the depression. At the finale, Shirley's Christmas pageant will be joined by Ebenezer Scrooge and Santa Claus, along with other holiday customs descended from eclectic cultural references.
A melting pot of culture in the 1930's, much like the 21st century, people brought their dreams, hopes and love along with them to the streets of New York, and other American cities across the country. Perhaps in this tenuous holiday season, hearts often adrift in the world's chaos, A Coney Island Christmas will reminisce the child once alive in the audiences' hearts-the joy and wonder inherent in family, friends, and humanity for their collective dreams of peace.
Lyric Arts presents Donald Margulies' A Coney Island Christmas at 420 East Main Street, Anoka, through December 17. For performance scheduled in repertory with Forever Plaid: Plaid Tidings or tickets, please visit: www.lyricarts.org.