Handle with Care
Making a Delivery Express to the Heart
By Jason Odell Williams
Bandwagon Productions & Douglas Denoff, Westside Theatre (Downstairs), New York, N.Y.
Saturday, January 11, 2014, C–101&103 (middle stalls)
Directed by Karen Carpenter
Ayelet (Charlotte Cohn) stands by watching as Terrence (Sheffield Chastain, right) explains to Josh (Jonathan Sale) how he "misplaced" a package belonging to Ayelet in the play Handle with Care playing at the Westside Theatre (Downstairs) in New York. Photo by Doug Denoff, Springer Associates PR..
This was personal. We had come to know actor Sheffield Chastain through his wife, Ginna Hoben (whom we came to know through various Shakespeareances), and when Jason Odell Williams' new play Handle with Care scored an Off-Broadway run with Chastain in the cast and starring stage vet Carol Lawrence (the original Maria in West Side Story), we determined to see it, our first chance to see Chastain in a production.
However, like all great theater, this lovely little Christmas play, set in our neck of the woods, played by a talented and tight four-person cast (but lacking Lawrence, who was out with a knee injury) proved more deeply personal than anticipated. Some call it fate, I call it serendipity, but the genesis is faith in a guiding star that leads us to our promised land, even when the path is a maze of seeming dead ends.
Set entirely in a simple, local-owned motel room in Goodview, Virginia, the play opens on Christmas Eve with Chastain's Terrence, who works for the express package service company DHX, in the middle of an intense argument with Ayelet, played by the attractive Charlotte Cohn. Immediately, we see the core of the argument is communication: Terrence speaks uneducated Virginia Appalachian, Ayelet speaks Hebrew, and the issue is a package Terrence has "misplaced"—not lost, he insists, though his truck was stolen when he left the keys in it. The package is Ayelet's grandmother who had died sometime in the previous 24 hours. Terrence has called on a friend, Josh (Jonathan Sale)—by his account, the only friend he has—who is Jewish. Terrence figures Josh would have learned to speak "Jewish" in "Sunday school" and spoke it at his "Hare Krishna" and so can translate for Ayelet.
The 90-minute story plays out flashing back and forth between Dec. 23 and 24 (between scenes, the motel housekeeper changes the calendar on the bed stand), and we learn that the grandmother, Edna, was making her first visit to the United States in search of a long-lost love. She has brought along Ayelet, who is suffering through a depression in the wake of a year-earlier breakup. Josh is a young widower, still pained by the death of his wife in a car accident 20 months earlier, and he thinks Terrence is trying to set him up. Terrence is just Terrence, a guy who switched from working for UPS to DHX because the uniforms are cooler. Josh must coach Terrence through his crisis and comfort Ayelet in hers, and though we can marry the backstory with the current story easily enough to see midway through the play's second half the gotcha coming at the end, the payoff is still sweet.
In part, credit Williams' script, full of local detail: the Wawa gas station and mart where Terrance loses the package, the Food Lions throughout Virginia that Edna is visiting, dragging an oblivious Ayelet with her, the west of I-81 motels Ayelet gets stuck in while Edna carries out her mission. Josh's wife was killed one week after the Virginia Tech shootings of April 2007, and its relevance to the story is purely a psychological one, but it taps into a psychosis that those who were living in Virginia at the time of the massacre know all too well. The plot pits notions of fate against fatalism, and it takes something of a miracle—maybe two or three miracles occurring across 60 years—to come to its reconciliation, but Williams never gets trite or maudlin with his message.
Director Karen Carpenter maintains a quick pace and reins in the play's more melodramatic moments so that the proceedings don't get too sudsy. Laugh-out-loud comedy, tender moments of shared family ties and friendships, and the tragic underpinning of the main plot and subtext tragedies each in turn tug at our hearts.
Edna (Carol Lawrence) comforts Ayelet on Dec. 23 in the room of a small western Virginia motel in the Off-Broadway production of Jason Odell Williams' Handle with Care at the Westside Theatre (Downstairs). Understudy Geraldine Librandi played Edna in the performance we saw. Photo by Doug Denoff, Springer Associates PR.
Of the cast, Cohn as Ayelet does most of the emotional heavy lifting. She speaks Hebrew in the Dec. 24 scenes but English on Dec. 23 and in an earlier flashback with her grandmother (the play's structure makes this switch-in-language device easily palatable). Similarly, her emotional portrayal goes back and forth, from grief and anger to exhaustion and annoyance; from frustration with Terrence, Josh, and Edna, to love for Edna, intrigue about Josh, and, begrudgingly, caring for Terrance; from a frightened cynic lost in a strange land to a brave romantic charting a new life.
Sale keeps up Josh's nice-guy bearing while pressing down not only the grief but also the circumstances of that grief that he has never dealt with. Geraldine Librandi, filling in for Lawrence, gives Edna more than the Jewish grandmother archetypal portrayal with her impish glint of the eye and caring demeanor. The unexpected welling up of Edna's own suppressed tragedy, unleashed in a new manifestation, is the play's true emotional turning point.
Chastain could easily relegate Terrence to the part of hick buffoon and earn plentiful laughs. But he not only gives Terrence a real heart and soul, he gives him respect, from the technical brilliance of his mastering the New River region accent of western Virginia, to his eyes pleading for help and the way he reaches to Josh with gentle hands. He aches for a friend, he reckons every day with his ineptitude, and he wants to be right with God, but most of all he wants to have a purpose for being on this earth.
His careless handling of grandmother Edna is typical Terrence, but, typical of God, miracles often come in strange packages, and misplaced ones, too.
January 17, 2014