Coney Island Christmas: What it Means to be an American During the Holidays

LIMELIGHT THEATRE IN ST. AUGUSTINE

Nostalgia and tradition take center stage in the classic holiday production, Coney Island Christmas. Based on the short story by Grace Paley, the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Donald Margulies tells the timeless and universal tale of what it means to be an American during the holidays.

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Coney Island Christmas is staged through December 23rd on the Matuza Main Stage at the Limelight Theatre. A Jewish author and activist, Paley taps into the true spirit of Christmas, with two hilarious kid pageants layered into a heartwarming story of acceptance. “There is a whole undercurrent throughout the entire show,” says director Shelli Long. “It’s about tolerance, patience, learning from each other instead of just digging your heels in, and learning to accept other people even if their beliefs are different than yours. Why not?”

Shirley Abramowitz, played by Caragh Zeigler, is a young Jewish girl who is cast as Jesus in the school’s Christmas pageant. The cast includes Daphne Moore as Clara, Evelyn Lynam as Shirley, Alex Amarose as Mr. Abramowitz, Hazel Robinson as Mrs. Abramowitz, Joseph Stearman as Mr. Hilton, Adele Lawless as Miss Glace and Ashley Herbert as Evie. The ensemble cast features a number of young Limelight veterans.

The story begins in present day California, but as Shirley Abramowitz shares her memories with her great-granddaughter, the audience is transported back to 1930’s Brooklyn. The cultural juxtaposition is woven throughout the fabric of the story. Shirley must reconcile her role not just as the Christian figurehead in a holiday musical, but as the daughter of Jewish immigrants who feel such religious betrayals are erasing their own history and traditions.

“In act two after Mr. A and his wife have gone to see their daughter play Jesus Christ, he says it’s not a bad idea that we learn about other things. It was pre-war, we were just coming out of the Depression and we came to America to escape revolution and people persecuting us, and this is what you’re worried about?” says Long. “Shirley’s father is a little more open minded while her mother is afraid of losing her history and her family’s history.”

Long says she worked diligently with her cast and crew to create a sense of place for each era, even if the changes are as simple as swapping out a bed quilt or flipping a photo on the wall. A platform pivots to display the pageant madness to the Abramowitz deli.

To ensure the cultural proficiency of the language and attention to detail, Long says the team brought in Carol Gladstone, a friend of the Limelight Theatre, to act as a consultant. “The last thing I wanted to do was insult someone. We paid a lot of attention to getting things right. We wanted to be honorable,” she says.

While the story travels back and forth between past and present, there is an added dimension of two holiday pageants happening within the course of the play. Long and her team of stage managers, crew and a dedicated group of parent volunteers helped coordinate the Thanksgiving and Christmas pageant scenes complete with musical numbers, costume changes and a lot of laughs.

The majority of the kids featured in pageant scenes are veterans of the Limelight stage. Despite the challenges of working with young actors of varying ages, Long calls the Coney Island kids “absolute professionals.” She recalls one rehearsal while she was working with the adults actors and she and the stage manager suddenly realized the backstage area where the young cast was waiting for their call was threateningly quiet. The stage manager went to investigate the source of the silence and returned with some sobering news. “They were just sitting there reading, doing what they were supposed to be doing. I had to apologize to them,” laughs Long. “I got very blessed. They are veterans and more professional than some of the other actors I have worked with.”

Coney Island Christmas is the perfect family event. While it’s short in length—it was written as a one-act but Long has included a brief intermission to allow audiences time to stretch their legs and enjoy a refreshment—this production makes up for in spirit. “It’s charming and it’s a nice diversion from shopping and wrapping. There is nothing remotely offensive, and it’s perfect for the kids while they’re out of school. It’s fun for the kids to get to see other kids and who knows? Maybe that will spark the interest in one of them to say, ‘You know, I want to do that,’” she says.

Long is hopeful that audiences will not only appreciate the delightful characters and uplifting story, but will share the hopeful message during the holidays and every day. “You’re going to laugh, we’re going to ask you to sing along with a couple of songs during the pageants, but we also want you to think a minute, maybe have a conversation with your children,” she says. “There’s a lot of stuff going on at this time of year. It’s not just about Christmas. It’s about the opening up of people’s hearts and minds. As long as what you believe doesn’t get in the way or stop me from having my own set of beliefs, why not?”

Find out how you can share a Coney Island Christmas with your family this holiday season by going to limelight-theatre.org/shows.

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About Liza Mitchell

october, 2021

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