IF YOU GO
What: Romantic comedy about an Israeli woman lost in America with a misplaced DHL package
When: Oct. 27 - Nov. 20; Evening & matinée shows available
Where: Norris Community Center, 755 Eighth Ave. S., Naples
Cost: Tickets start at $35
Information: 866-811-4111 or gulfshoreplayhouse.org
On the Web: Sign up to receive more theater news from the Stage Door blog via email.
NAPLES — "The journey of life is pretty fascinating." So says playwright Jason Odell Williams, whose "Handle with Care" opens next Thursday at Gulfshore Playhouse in Naples. The show is about life, love and finding things you didn't even know you were looking for during a journey you didn't know you were on.
"One of the themes of the play, and a theme in life too, is that people don’t always realize they are on the right path until they look back from a distance," Williams said. "It’s something I’ve always been interested in: the hundred small decisions that get you where you are."
WHEN AYELET MET JOSH
"Handle with Care" opens somewhere in a nondescript Virginia hotel room. An Israeli woman Ayelet (pronounced I-yell-it) is screaming in Hebrew at a flustered DHL clerk. The clerk has lost an important package. From such an inauspicious beginning, a romantic comedy was born.
Williams, who trained as an actor, began writing after he grew tired of going to auditions for uninteresting projects. He decided to write a play, cast friends, do readings and try to get work produced.
"The best actor I know is also my wife," Williams said. "So I started with the idea that I wanted to write a play for her."
Charlotte Cohn, who will star in the role of Ayelet, came back with the idea for a play "where language was a barrier or where words were not the only tool of expression between characters." Williams went to work.
Writing for his wife was anything but a challenge. Knowing - or at least hoping - that Cohn would play the role was both an inspiration and a boon.
"It’s much, much easier to write for an actor, to already have someone’s voice in mind," Williams said "I know her rhythms, I know her speech patterns. I know her strengths as an actor. It makes it more fun and just much easier 'to hear.'"
While the playwright scripted the story for his wife - who was a real-life colonel in the Israeli army (and an accomplished opera singer who speaks four languages) - the sweet love story at the heart of the play bears no resemblance to their own romance.
"People always wonder about that," Williams said, "but the story of Josh and Ayelet is completely made-up, total fiction. Charlotte speaks four languages fluently, so there were no communication gaps with us."
He sees himself in the characters - but they are not based on anyone in particular.
"I think all writers see themselves in their characters. Otherwise they couldn’t write them," Williams said. "But this story is not about me and Charlotte."
SEARCHING FOR SOMETHING
First and foremost, "Handle with Care" is a play about characters searching for something - packages, love, lost trucks, the meaning of life - even if they don't know what they're looking for. Williams wants the theater-goers to enjoy the journey as much as destination.
"[When I go to the theatre] I want to laugh a lot, think a lot, maybe cry a little, and feel like I was lost with some very entertaining people for 90 minutes," he said. "Theatre should not be medicine. Not something you suffer through because you think culture is good for you. It should be entertaining, diverting and a little thought-provoking."
Writing the play, the author found that certain themes crept into the piece - even though he claims to "just write dialogue and story."
"One of the most interesting little discoveries we recently made was that the first word of the play (although it’s said in Hebrew) is “God” and the last word is “love,'" Williams said. "... I can’t help but feel that was no accident."
Just as fast though, he rebuts the idea that the play is about religion.
"But don't worry! The play is NOT about God or religion at all," he says. "It’s about a girl meeting a boy and finding love under not-very-typical circumstances."
"HANDLE WITH CARE"
"Handle with Care" has been on quite a journey of its own.
Williams had titled his show "At A Loss," in part because all of the characters were "at a loss for words," but also because they had "lost something and are looking for something." Yet, as Gulfshore Playhouse director Kristen Coury noted, the title suggests a deep drama about death or loss.
"I used DHL because of the colors. I [just] though Terrence would want to work for the delivery company with the coolest uniform!"
- playwright Jason Odell Williams
"The play is really a lovely and hopeful romantic comedy," Williams said. "Kristen and Charlotte and I were brainstorming about possible titles and Kristen tossed out 'Handle with Care' and we all sort of liked it."
With the change, Williams thinks it sets a tone for audiences coming into the play, telling them that it will be light-hearted and hopeful.
"The four characters in the play are all people that need to be handled with care," he notes. "They are all at different crossroads and have all lost something special and need something more in their lives, most notably, love."
Changing the title also allowed for one more connection to come into play. Audiences learn early on that the package DHL loses is, in fact, the body of Ayelet's grandmother, Edna.
"One of the major plot points is the lost DHL package, which would have the words 'Handle with Care' emblazoned on the side," Williams said. "We never see the actual “package” which is intentional, but the double meaning of “Handle with Care” is nice."
Williams completed the play over the course of a few months in 2007. Readings in New York and New Jersey followed. There were rewrites along the way. He estimates that just 20 percent of the the play's original material remains.
"Handle with Care" received its world premiere at the Kitchen Theatre in Ithaca, New York this summer, although it played under its old title, "At A Loss." Following that show, Williams and Gulfshore Playhouse artistic director Kristen Coury have continued to tweak the show.
One major speech was restored, but he describes the other changes as "really minor" but having a greater effect on the story as a whole.
"A word here, three words there," Williams said, "But those little changes really do add up to a tighter and more cohesive story. The real difference is in how the actors and director approach the play."
Williams believes that the Gulfshore Playhouse version gets closer to the play he had in mind years ago when he set out to write something.
"It’s been really great to be part of the rehearsal process from day one and I think Kristen and I really see eye to eye," Williams said. "She and the cast have been great at finding things I did not even know were there but that I love! That’s really best thing in the world for a playwright. To have the actors and director elevate the play you wrote."
As for the good folks at package delivery service DHL, the playwright didn't pick them because they lost his packages.
"I used DHL because of the colors," Williams admitted. (The DHL uniform, in contrast with the standard brown of UPS, is bright yellow and red.) "I [just] though Terrence would want to work for the delivery company with the coolest uniform!"