In Wendy Graf’s play Lessons, presented by West Coast Jewish Theatre and The Group at Strasberg in West Hollywood, Ruth (Larissa Laskin), a 40-something rabbi living in Seattle, has abandoned God and exiled herself to Washington’s Bainbridge Island after a terrorist attack snuffed out the life of her 13-year-old daughter. Mother and teenager were in Israel at the time to celebrate the child’s bat mitzvah. The girl was buying an ice cream cone when the bomb struck.
I write this plot detail without giving away any great mystery, though it is revealed in one of those confessional scenes in which the confessee — a boundlessly energetic former shoe manufacturer named Ben (Hal Linden), 30 years Ruth’s senior and whom she’s just getting to know — gasps at the news. I think we are supposed to gasp as well, but the tragedy is just too commonplace a theatrical device for the intended punch to land, or for its revelation here to ruin the play for the uninitiated viewer. Ben’s obvious exasperation at Ruth’s defensive, no-nonsense veneer comes in his response: “Sometimes bad things just happen!” Perhaps he’s merely covering his awkwardness, but no self-respecting character should have to utter a bumper-sticker sentiment like that.
It’s a shame that Ruth’s iciness needs to be explained by a single trauma. As though iciness needs to be explained at all. As though the petty interactions of life and work and people in general aren’t enough to make one icy. I can’t get Anton Chekhov’s line out of my head: “Any idiot can make it through a crisis, it’s the day-to-day living that will kill you.”
It’s unlikely that Chekhov would have warmed to Lessons, or even to David Lindsay-Abaire’s Rabbit Hole — this year’s recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for drama — also centering on the random death of a child (in a traffic accident) that does in the parents’ marriage. It too is a coping-with-grief play. In Rabbit Hole,it’s the crisis, not the day-to-day living, that’s killing them.
Lessons, like Rabbit Hole, comes from the cause-and-effect mathematics of artifice, in which a character and the agony that defines that character stem from a root cause. The equation supposes that we can’t understand agony or character until we understand that root. This theory holds up well in reductive dramas. Unfortunately, it bears only a fleeting resemblance to the complexities of life as it’s actually lived. That’s a problem in a theological drama such as Lessons that is attempting to probe life’s deeper meanings.
Referred to her by a mutual acquaintance, Ben, a nonpracticing Jew whose parents essentially banned Judaism from the house, has bounded into Ruth’s life for Hebrew lessons. (On a whim, he turns this into a preparation for the bar mitzvah he never had.) Ben is now a widower, so the pair is bonded by grief, though he’s a highly spirited fellow who keeps trying to get the standoffish Ruth to accept his gift of running-shoes. She’s a depressive caffeine and nicotine addict with agoraphobic tendencies. The play’s action, set entirely in Ruth’s still-unpacked apartment (designed by Daniel L. Wheeler), unfolds through a series of meetings dramatizing their mutual attempts to stave off memories of death: he, with chattiness and innate curiosity about everything; she, through the intricacies of the Torah that she knows so well.
Ruth points out that the Kaddish, or traditional Jewish prayer of mourning, contains not one reference to death or to the deceased. Rather, it’s an homage to the grace of God, and a prayer for peace. The grace of God, however, is not so easy to find after a car bomb kills your 13-year-old girl while she’s buying an ice cream cone. Ruth can no longer stomach the Kaddish prayer because it is a poem to God’s benevolent design, which she no longer believes in. She once held God in her heart, and she now suffers the rage of a betrayed lover.
I understand why Gordon Davidson, for his first stage-directing assignment since leaving his post as artistic director of Center Theatre Group, would be attracted to this play. Its challenges to God’s purpose have classical roots that skip across world drama from Oedipus the King to Hamlet to The Dybbuk to Samuel Beckett’s grim vaudevilles to the collected works of August Wilson. And Davidson stages an appealing production, with Linden and Laskin shadowboxing through their rite of self-rediscovery. The traps for Ruth are like manholes — the temptation to succumb to her depression with a depressed portrayal. Laskin dances around that trap with an underlying energy, fastidiousness and investment in keeping Ben on point, aiding the spirited delivery of their repartee.
What I don’t understand is how the play could have such remedial dramaturgical weaknesses after an intense development process. With Davidson’s guidance, Graf did considerable rewriting after Davidson’s son, Adam, directed an earlier version at this same venue in 2005 with Mare Winningham as Ruth. I don’t understand how, after all that work, the characters spend so much of their time explaining rather than revealing themselves. At least in Rabbit Hole, revelations slip out, as though by accident, from a conflict in which a character has no alternative but to expose a new sliver of the larger puzzle. In Lessons, the play’s crucial disclosures frequently get blurted out for what seem to be the playwright’s sense of dramatic structure rather than the characters’ sense of emotional urgency. In scenes about the Torah, the result is a compelling, intriguing instruction manual. The words of a drama, however, are merely neon signs looming over the often unspoken, tectonic shifts grinding out beneath them. Ruth and Ben are already dancing in an earthquake zone; the actors play out that dance with style and spirit. When they then tell us about it, the play eviscerates its own mysteries.
For all this, I respect Graf’s intentions, which grapple with the resonances of mortality. Of all God’s creatures, only humans go atwitter at the prospect of death — not so much from the fear of dying (all beasts fear dying), but of dying pointlessly, of leaving no legacy worth remembering; whether it be the running-shoes that Ben once manufactured, or through Ruth’s child. Shakespeare summed it up in Hamlet’s artful eloquence:
“What is a man,
If his chief good and market of his time
Be but to sleep and feed? A beast, no more.
Sure, he that made us with such large discourse,
Looking before and after, gave us not
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That capability and god-like reason
To fust in us unused.”
This is why the death of a child is such an emotional and symbolic affront — the promise withdrawn, the person who might have been, who could have done, who would have remembered us. Herein lies the essence of Graf’s play, a youngish woman and an older man without children in their lives; they forge a life from death, the prospect of a reckoning from grief. Though the play’s dramaturgy is terribly frayed, its liturgy contains a transcendent appeal.
LESSONS | By WENDY GRAF | Presented by WEST COAST JEWISH THEATRE and THE GROUP AT STRASBERG at LEE STRASBERG CREATIVE CENTER, 7936 Santa Monica Blvd., W. Hlywd. | Through December 23 | (323) 650-7777