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Actors’ Summit…HANDLE WITH CARE, it’s mostly Hebrew to me

Roy Berko

Member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle

Picture this:  on a Thursday night, an American theatrical comedy, one-third of which’s dialogue was spoken in Hebrew, was viewed by an audience composed primarily of Hebrew speaking Israelis.  The setting:  Actors’ Summit in Akron.  Yes, Akron, Ohio with a small Jewish population!

How did this occurrence come to pass?  A group of Israeli teenagers were in the United States on an exchange program.  They were spending time in Cleveland, their hosts became aware of the production of Jason Odell Williams’ “Handle With Care,” and brought the Israeli students, and the students at Beachwood’s Akiva (Jewish) High School to the play.

Being in the audience with the students added a dimension to the theatrical experience.  During the show there was an underlying stream of comments.  One of the patrons thought the Israeli students were being disrespectful until it was pointed out that the sounds being heard were interpretations from English to Hebrew by the Akiva students.  The Israelis were as lost in the English as most of the rest of the audience was in the Hebrew spoken segments.

There was laughter from the students when Hebrew was being spoken, which was absent from the English speaking audience, and laughter when the English was being spoken from the rest of the audience, but not from the Israelis.  The subsets were reacting to what they understood, which was not available to the other group.

During the question and answer session, members of the cast, none of whom knew any Hebrew before their appearance in the play, were curious as to their ability to correctly pronounce the words they were speaking.  The Israeli students laughed as they explained that like any language, there are differences in pronunciation  in Hebrew.  They came to the conclusion that the accent being used was Russian-Hebrew (former Russians who emigrated to Israel, learned Hebrew, but pronounce it based on their Russian language pronunciation).  Not surprisingly, Oudi Singer, who acted as the Hebrew coach for the cast, speaks Russian-Hebrew.

Williams’ play is a pleasant comedy which has a feel good sit-com format.  It is one of those plays where the outcome becomes obvious about one-third into the goings-on.

Loosely following some aspects of the film classic “It’s a Wonderful Life,” complete with a bumbling “guardian angel” and lots of happy coincidences, it’s the kind of script that will probably be produced by Jewish theatres and temple drama groups.

The story centers on a trip to America by grandma Edna, on an undisclosed mission, and her granddaughter, Ayelet, who has recently broken up with her boyfriend.  As we come upon Ayelet, in a rundown motel in backwoods Virginia, she is hysterically yelling in Hebrew at Terrence, an air-headed delivery man.  We eventually find out that grandma Edna had died and her body was placed in a box for shipment back to Israel for burial.  (How the body got put into the box, doubtfully handled by Jewish ritual, which requires special preparation and the body never be left alone, is a mystery.)

The body was “lost” when Terrence left the keys in his delivery truck and the vehicle was stolen while he made a 7-ll food stop.  Into the chaos enters Josh.  He’s a high school friend of Terrence’s, one of the few Jews in the area, and, of course, Terrence assumes that because of his religion he will be able to communicate with Ayelet.  The non-observant and Hebrew-illiterate Josh is of no help.  (But, as the audience figures out, he’s there for a plot-purpose.)

Josh’s wife died a few years ago.  Hmm….the plot unfolds.  Ayelet and Josh are both nice, Jewish, unmarried, and open for love!

The body is found, and grandma Edna’s belief in the “beshert” (Yiddish for “meant to be”) comes true.

A 2013-2014 off-Broadway production of “Handle With Care,” starring Carol Lawrence (of “West Side Story” fame), ran 112 performances and was called “fearlessly adorable” by the “NY Jewish Review.”

The Actors’ Summit production, under the direction of Constance Thackaberry, who is a friend of the playwright, is quite pleasant.  The performances are very good.  Natalie Sander Kern undertook the daunting responsibility of learning hundreds of lines in a language she didn’t know.  She also had to learn to pronounce the words, and make dramatic sense of them.  She was outstanding, and, according to one of the Israeli students, “made me laugh.”

Keith Stevens was charming as the befuddled Josh.  Arthur Chu (who some in the audience knew as the very successful contestant on the nationally televised  “Jeopardy”) added with his southern-accented interpretation of the dim-witted Terrence.  Marci Paolucci made a nice “Savta” (Hebrew for grandmother), with a surprising past.

Capsule judgment: “Handle With Care” isn’t a great script, but makes for a smiling evening of theatre.  Seeing the show with a group of Israeli, Hebrew-speaking students, added a dimension of understanding of culture and language.

For tickets to HANDLE WITH CARE, which runs through April 13, 2014, call 330-374-7568 or go to