Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley

Handle with Care
City Lights Theater Company
Review by Eddie Reynolds

Also see Eddie's review of Death Takes a Holiday

Roneet Aliza Rahamim and Max Tachis
Photo by Susan Mah
A snowy Christmas Eve, a nondescript motel room in tiny Goodview, Virginia, and It's a Wonderful Life marathons on every TV channel can only mean one thing: a miracle is about to happen. But before this holiday miracle can come to pass, a grandmother from Israel will die of old age, her casket will be lost by a bumbling delivery guy, and his Jewish best friend will try to recall a few words from his long-ago bar mitzvah in order to placate an hysterical granddaughter who can only speak Hebrew. Oh, even though there is no tinsel or Christmas tree in sight and much of the dialogue is in Hebrew, one would have to look far and wide to find a more enjoyable, funny, and heartwarming way to kick off the holiday season this year—whatever holiday that person might be planning to celebrate. City Lights Theater Company presents Jason Odell Williams' Handle with Care (with Hebrew by Charlotte Cohn), a 2013 Off-Broadway play recently optioned for the big screen, and touted as "the perfect Jewish Christmas story."

Roberta J. Morris is Edna, the kind of curly-headed, spry "savta" (grandmother) that almost any one would want—except maybe her thirty-something Israeli granddaughter Ayelet whom she has dragged across the sea to see the "true America" (as in no D.C., New York, or landmarks but only small, no-name towns in Virginia). We meet the soon-to-expire Edna in flashbacks to the prior night (December 23), with Ms. Morris playing to the hilt an elderly, but still very much alive lady on some kind of mysterious mission, part of which entails doing all she can to gently kid, poke, and prod the pouty, obstinate Ayelet to get out of a year-long funk over a failed relationship. Bustling like a bee around the latest cheap motel of their trip (while still catching a few minutes of her favorite "Wheel of Fortune"—in English which she barely understands), Edna is doing all she can to figure out how to help her granddaughter, even secretly reading Ayelet's private journal detailing dreams about a future husband who "doesn't look Israeli."

But Edna can only appear alive in later flashbacks. In the play's opening moments, pacing wildly about the motel room with flailing arms and eyes that emit bullets, Ayelet (Roneet Aliza Rahamim) is yelling in Hebrew at a distraught, dumfounded, and (to tell the truth) dorky guy in yellow pants and bright red winter coat. Ms. Rahamim will continue to communicate mainly in Hebrew the entire play (except in the flashbacks with Edna, where their Hebrew becomes English for us), but there is rarely a minute where the meaning of what she is saying is not clear to everyone—both to those on stage and to us in the audience. Her lowered, worried eyes; acutely expressive countenance; and slight stature that is a giant in filling a room with its presence communicate all that is necessary.

The focus of her wrath is Terry, on a DHX delivery from hell since he lost her grandmother's practically still-warm body in a casket he was delivering for its quick trip to Israel in order to get her in hallowed ground within the traditional 24-hour requirement. The fact that he lost it to a passing thief while grabbing some gas station eats with the keys still in the van is in his word, "a comment on the sad state of the world." Jeremy Ryan's Terry is broad in constant smiles (except when he is getting yelled at in Hebrew), excitably nervous, not overly smart, but truly the nicest guy you'd ever want to meet. And he knows what to do in this situation: Call his ol' high school buddy Josh, who he is sure can help since, "I thought your learned all that (Hebrew) before you had your Hare Krishna" (aka Bar Mitzvah).

Max Tachis as Josh is tall and lanky, with a gosh-darn niceness about him, too. As he arrives at the melee of now both Ayelet and Terry madly shouting words neither can understand of the other, he is able to say little beyond "Shalom," admitting to Terry, "Unless she starts quoting my haftorah, I can't understand her." But that one and a couple other Hebrew words he begins to recall are enough to calm Ayelet and for the two to begin an increasingly meaningful dialogue leading somewhere they cannot imagine at first. Through pantomime detailing a casket gone bye-bye, impersonations of Jimmy Stewart and Owen Wilson, and sung lyrics of a few universally known tunes ("Cel-e-brate good times, come on"), they strike up a conversation that eventually leads each to reveal deep secrets and to discover feelings neither thought yet ready to uncover.

Overall, magic is created by this outstanding ensemble of four. Kit Wilder's direction allows the skins of the onion to gently unravel to reveal its secret core with laughter guiding the way. Never is there a pause too long or a scene too abruptly shifted. Waves of comedy, nostalgia, empathy, and romance flow out from the stage over the enthralled audience, where at the performance I attended more than just a few times individual members spontaneously clapped in delight, turned to whisper some reaction that can no longer be contained, or suddenly wiped a tear while also chuckling aloud. The cast and director are greatly aided by Ron Gasparinetti's set that is that Motel 6 we have all found ourselves in at one time or another but is given a feel of Christmas by a blowing snow with its mounting banks every time the metal door is opened to the parking lot outside. George Psarras reminds us that it is December 24 with familiar carols greeting us as we arrive and filling the air in between early scenes, later to give way to intermingled Hanukkah tunes. Nick Kumamoto's lighting cues and Jane Lambert's costumes finish setting just the right table for this holiday feast of a show that City Lights Theater Company serves flawlessly.

For a "Merry Everything" good time that will both tickle and warm one's innards, it is off to San Jose for Handle with Care.

City Lights Theater Company continues its production of Handle with Care through December 20, 2015, at 529 South Second Street, San Jose. Tickets are available online at