Wendy Graf sat in a synagogue several years ago listening to a rabbi's sermon.
"She was talking about experiencing a traumatic event and how her faith had been sorely tested," Graf recalled. "That really got me thinking."
Graf went on to write "Lessons," her latest play that mines the depths of a rabbi's religious crisis and also draws upon her own spiritual awakening and subsequent adult bat mitzvah.
"I'm not the type of writer who can just sit down and bang out 'Star Wars,'" she conceded. "Whatever I write has to be compelling to me in a personal way."
Opening tonight at the Lee Strasberg Theater, "Lessons" kicks off an auspicious season for the West Coast Jewish Theater and points to an increasingly vibrant Jewish theater scene in Los Angeles. With an unprecedented lineup of three full-fledged productions this year, the West Coast Jewish Theater will be presenting "American Klezmer" in the fall and a premiere about Jewish cabaret star Sophie Tucker this winter. Other upcoming theatrical events include Sandy Wolshin's play "The Rabbi and The Cheerleader," opening in August at the Odyssey Theater while director Alexandra More will resume her Celebrity Staged-Play Readings at the Westside JCC in September.
"Lessons" revolves around Ben, a 60-something man who seeks the bar mitzvah he never had and Ruth, a disillusioned 40-something rabbi who has been roped into tutoring him. As the down-and-out Ruth reluctantly provides her seemingly indefatigable student with a Jewish education, Ben does his best to charm his way through his teacher's formidable barriers. He nags her to stop smoking, brings her bagels and gets personal about his life and reasons for no longer wanting to be "a watered-down Jew." Gradually, Ruth reveals the secret behind her depression and, essentially, one revelation leads to another. Ultimately, Ben successfully learns what he needs from Ruth but he, too, has important lessons to teach.
"There are aspects of myself in both of these characters," observed Graf, who has written three other plays and led a varied career as an actress, screenwriter and private investigator. "Like Ben, I was secular and felt like I was missing something. And like Ruth, I, too, experienced a crisis of faith."
Directed by Adam Davidson, "Lessons" stars Hal Linden as Ben, Mare Winningham as Ruth and has been co-produced by The Group, the Strasberg Theater's production company.
"This play is about how we find faith in the world and this really spoke to me," said Davidson during a rehearsal break at the Strasberg Theater. "Wendy found a way to dramatize what's specific to Judaism in a way that's universal to anyone dealing with issues of faith."
An accomplished TV and film director whose credits include "Six Feet Under" and an Oscar for his short film, "The Lunch Date," Davidson adds that while the play delves into the details of religion, "you're not going to see a sermon. This is a story for an audience to get involved in and feel hopefully moved by the experience," he says.
Like Davidson, who alluded to the play having "personal resonance," both Linden and Winningham say their reasons for performing in this production are not just professional.
"Ben represents what happened to me and a lot of other people," Linden said. "Sure, I had a bar mitzvah but I've been a Jew who goes to synagogue twice a year. Like Ben, sometimes I wonder whether I'm missing something in my life."
Linden, who's best known for his role as Barney Miller on the hit 1970s-early '80s TV show, grew up in the Bronx and had a father "for whom Judaism was more about Zionism. Spirituality took a back seat in my family," he said. "And now that I have children of my own, I think, 'What have I not passed onto them?' That's why this play tears my heart out. Ben says he's a watered-down Jew but really, we're a generation of watered-down Jews."
Unlike Linden, Winningham has less in common with her character but more in common with the playwright. Having converted to Judaism two years ago, the Emmy Award-winning actress has recently undergone her own intensive spiritual search and feels "it's fate" that she's playing the role of Ruth.
"She isn't like me at all, but I feel I've had a few years of preparation for this," she said. "Ruth is stuck in her grief but she's a rabbi and someone who's supposed to inspire people. I am someone who's been inspired by Judaism and so I get that which is buried in her."
"I would have been drawn to this play anyway because I love the idea of two characters traveling a great distance and turning each other's lives around," Winningham added. "But it's really exciting that I found a play that crosses over into my own life."
Encouraged by her collaborators' response to "Lessons," Graf has been working on a new Holocaust-related script that explores "hope, renewal and Jewish identity.
"A friend of mine said that I'm becoming the Chaim Potok of Brentwood," she said. "But I see how people have become so involved with 'Lessons.' And I know that I have something to pass onto to my children."
"Lessons" runs through Aug. 27 at the Lee Strasberg Creative Center's Marilyn Monroe Theater, 7936 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood. Showtimes are Thurs.-Sat. 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 and 7 p.m. $25. For more information, call (323) 650-7777.