* Editor’s note: Allie goes by they/them pronouns, and prefers to be called “sibling” rather than “sister.”
LOS ANGELES – What a strange, beautiful dream, one I hope to have every night so I can wake up each morning laughing and dewy-eyed.
I sat in a dark room, surrounded by an assortment of people from distant corners of my life. In front of me was a giant, silver “Happy Hanukkah” sign that kept falling down. Various people dressed in trendy, millennial clothing attempted different ways of keeping it up, but after about the seventh time, someone simply took it down. In front of the offending sign was a menorah, which managed to stay put. In the corner on a bureau were baby pictures of my sibling, and lying on the ground, wrapped in scarves and texting listlessly, was Allie, very much an adult.
Even though this tableau felt like a surreal dream, I’m 99.9 percent certain it was real. It marked the first scene of “Charlie Boyd,” an award-winning play that my sibling, Allie Wittner, wrote and performed at the Zephyr Theatre in Los Angeles. They had been working on it for two years, and found out in March it had been selected by the She L.A. Summer Arts Festival, which showcases the work of young playwrights. Allie had just a few months to rework the script, find rehearsal space, find actors, drum up publicity – and most of all, summon the courage and self-possession to tie it all together.
“The whole experience was such a challenge that it kind of showed me all that I am capable of, and just that my perceived limits are not true, and I can do anything I want,” said Allie, who also noted that they had to overcome boatloads of dread and doubt. “It wasn’t real for so long in my mind. It just was this thing that I had absolutely no image of, did not conceptualize, was sort of dreading, was making me sort of angry. It at one point made me so anxious and depressed I thought I can either literally kill myself, or just figure out how to move forward and do this thing that scares me so much.”
But they did figure out a way to move forward, and the result was an uproariously funny, tender, and insightful meditation on love, lust, growing up, investigative journalism, and of course, Hanukkah. “Charlie Boyd” won three festival awards – more than any other entry. It was a tight, breezy 90 minutes that delivered laughs so consistently, I felt like I was watching a well-made comedy movie, and felt none of the squirmy lethargy a rube like me usually suffers while watching plays.
The plot centers around Wendy, a college student back home and down in the dumps after breaking up with her girlfriend. Her mother, a well-meaning worrywart who bears a striking resemblance to our own, informs Wendy that she took an early-morning Pilates class (something Allie and I have heard once or twice, usually while groggily half-asleep) where she learned that Charlie Boyd, Wendy’s high school crush, is also back in town for mysterious reasons.
Wendy’s interest is piqued. She texts him, he comes over, and then Wendy inhales deeply and plotzes with gusto – Allie, once a star dancer who played Clara in “The Nutcracker” at Lisa’s Dance Studio in Marblehead, is a brilliant physical comedian.
Just before Wendy expects Charlie, the doorbell rings, and she rushes to answer it. Instead of hulky, hunky Charlie – an all-American surfer dude who played the Robert Redford to Wendy’s nerdy, curly Barbra Streisand – Wendy is greeted by Frank, a strange reporter from a small newspaper who’s still in high school and writing a story about Wendy’s single mother, Jill, and how she celebrates Hanukkah alone. (Though Allie assures me Frank was not based on me, I can’t help but take a little credit for this socially awkward reporter covering a local Jewish story.) Frank watches Jill light the menorah, and she explains each of the blessings and what they mean to her.
Allie told me that they always felt Hanukkah – and Judaism in general – made them feel interesting, especially at a high school without many Jews. “It was something that makes Wendy maybe a little bit interesting to [Charlie] … he’s like, ‘Oh, here’s this girl praying in Hebrew in front of me,”’ said Allie.
“It’s something that I grew up with, took for granted, and these prayers are something I associated with Hebrew school teachers, but for certain people, especially at Pingree [a private school in Hamilton], it was like, ‘Oh, what? Wow! What do you guys do?’… and it was maybe the associations that people made with Jews I ran with, like, Oh yes, we are funny, we are smart, we are a little crazy.”
But Allie continued that Hanukkah means more than trying to impress whatever the male version of a shiksa is called. It’s also imbued – subconsciously, perhaps – with feelings of home and meaning.
“I did want a feeling of coziness, and playing into the nostalgia these people have for high school versions of themselves,” they said. “Maybe [Wendy] has heard the story about her grandma singing [the prayers] the first time she held her, so maybe then there is that meaning, and then she gets to sing it in front of this boy she is in love with, and I think that maybe this is a common experience among young Jewish people – yeah, maybe I could joke about this and maybe I don’t feel like I’m pushing boundaries, but there is this web of history and meaning attached to it.”
Jill’s (and my mom’s) favorite prayer is the Shehecheyanu, the blessing for new beginnings. In the play, Wendy recites it just before she begins dating Charlie. Offstage, I recite it as Allie reworks this play to enter it into new competitions, and gets started on their next one.