BWW Reviews: HANDLE WITH CARE at Stageworks

There is a scene near the end of Act 1 of HANDLE WITH CARE, the new holiday play at Stageworks, that is so rich and beautiful in its silence that the rest of the show wouldn't work without it. It is a scene between two individuals--the Hebrew-speaking Ayelet (Georgina McKee) and Jewish-American Josh (Eddie Gomez)--quietly sitting on a motel room bed. They are separated mainly by language, but they finally find a moment of connection. There is a lovely stillness to the scene, and the audience dares not breath. Ayelet puts her head on Josh's shoulder. Pin-dropping silence. It's an instance so authentic that if you don't have two fine actors performing it, the rest of the show cannot and will not work.

Luckily, Ms. McKee and Mr. Gomez are both quite accomplished in their roles and more than live up to the moment.

Jason Odell Williams' HANDLE WITH CARE is a simple story. It takes place on Christmas Eve, where an Israeli woman's beloved grandmother has passed away while visiting Goodview, Virginia, but the coffin carrying her is lost, and the DHX driver responsible calls in a Jewish friend to help with the language barrier. That's about it. But what really happens is miraculous in a Christmas kind of way, and since it deals primarily with Jewish themes and traditions ("Tradition!" as Ayelet exclaims in her best Tevye voice), the show will have great appeal to Christians and Jews alike. It's a breezy, feel-good play with some forced lines that belabor the obvious points (less is usually more), but it's also joyous and doesn't have a bad thought in its head. It could be disposable, a quickly forgotten holiday confection, but the connection of those two characters (and actors), along with some incredibly moving monologues and moments, makes for a deeper experience.

As Ayelet, the Israeli stuck in a Virginia motel room, Georgina McKee is quite wonderful. It's a tour de force, where we believe she speaks only Hebrew and get to see so many sides to her (in key flashback scenes, although she speaks Hebrew with her grandmother, we get to hear that dialogue in English). McKee is a lovely presence onstage, so very likable, and we feel for her, and get caught up in her predicament and in the synchronicity that follows.

As Josh, Eddie Gomez perfectly matches McKee. They make such a wonderful pairing, and their scenes together are the highlight of the show. We really like them as a potential couple and root for them. Gomez is so natural, a regular guy (one of the hardest tasks for an actor to pull off without being boring) and yet there is sadness there along with the joy of discovery. There are so many layers there. It's an incredibly strong performance, especially as the show gets going.

As Terrence, the dim-witted DHX worker, Brandon Shea's portrayal is like a sit-com character, Cosmo Kramer with a "Cosmic Cruiser" red cap. This seems to be the intent of the script, but I don't know if it works. Shea is certainly a funny presence onstage, goofy like Bullwinkle, but he seems to have coasted in from the wrong show. It's like seeing a still life oil painting with a crayon rendition of Shaggy from "Scooby Doo" smack dab in the center of it.

Shea's over-the-top performance reminds me of Hank Worden as Mose Harper in the classic western The Searchers. Here is John Ford's masterpiece, with John Wayne's finest performance, but the cartoon character of Mose just seems teleported from another, goofier movie. Comic relief is one thing, but this is something else. (Although, to be fair, HANDLE WITH CARE is about as far from The Searchers as a show will go.) Shea is a gifted comedian, very talented and an audience pleaser, but the part is a caricature, not a real person, and his presence is problematic. The chemistry between McKee and Gomez is so lovely that the character's intrusion--and in one scene, it's a literal intrusion--seems quite jarring. This is more of an issue with the playwright than the actor; I wish Williams had drawn the part of Terrence with the same care that he drew Ayelet and Josh.

The fourth character is Ayelet's grandmother, Edna, seen only in the very important flashbacks. As played by Midge Mamatas, she is quite touching. Mamatas has two monologues--one at the top of Act 2 and one near the end of the show--that are beautifully realized and as lovely as it gets. She's extraordinary, with just the right combination of feistiness and exhaustion.

The show starts off shaky, but it finds its footing when Josh and Ayelet connect. Although it's told with a Tarantino-like structure--the present and the past hopping scene by scene--it never gets convoluted.

Jimmy Kontos' direction is sharp and confident. The motel set design by Frank Chavez is superb, and Jo Averill-Snell's lighting is spot on (I really enjoy the snow effect outside the hotel window). Karla Hartley's sound is appropriate, and Melinda Kajando's costumes work (the doofus DHX driver stands out because he is dressed in bright red; it's like having an oversized poinsettia onstage).

The show is charming, perfect for this time of year. If you've seen "A Christmas Carol" countless times, and if you want to wait until Christmas Eve to view "It's a Wonderful Life" on TV again (alluded to in the show), then try something new and don't miss this sweet treat at Stageworks. HANDLE WITH CARE is just the right stocking stuffer to complete your holiday spirit.

HANDLE WITH CARE plays at Stageworks until December 21st. For tickets, please call (813) 374-2416.

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From This Author Peter Nason

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