Jeff Bernhardt is an author, playwright, psychotherapist and Jewish educator who directs social-action programs at Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills; he is also the lead tutor for the b’nai mitzvah program at Temple Israel of Hollywood. But his new play, “Therapy” — opening March 2 at the Secret Rose Theatre in North Hollywood — draws on his experience as a social worker for Jewish Family Service and Occidental College’s student counseling center in the 1990s and early 2000s.
Wearing a colorful kippah and a clipped beard during a recent interview at Temple Israel, the intense, affable Bernhardt recalled how the idea for the play began, in part, with a telephone call that shook him to the core: One of his former psychotherapy clients, a man in his 20s, committed suicide about five months after completing some short-term counseling.
The young man had not come to Bernhardt specifically for symptoms of depression, nor had he expressed a desire to kill himself; rather the counseling had revolved around “normal developmental, identity and relationship issues,” Bernhard said. So when the news came that he had died, “I was devastated, shocked and paralyzed,” Bernhardt said. “I talked it through with the people I had worked with, and we revisited the experience of working with the client, but you don’t ever really get over it. There were the inevitable questions of ‘What could I have done differently?’ ”
Bernhardt began mulling over the challenges therapists face, and how therapists themselves often bring their own personal and work-related problems to their own therapists. He also thought about how some practitioners struggle to help patients, even as the patients’ crises trigger the therapist’s own emotional baggage (Sigmund Freud called this phenomenon “countertransference.”)
And so, “Therapy” emerged as a drama revolving around three therapists: Moira, an earthy, motherly social worker who is battling guilt over her mother, whose health is declining in a distant city; Moira’s therapist, Sandra, a reserved, rigid practitioner who very much keeps within the rules of traditional boundaries in psychotherapy; and Steven, a novice social worker who comes to Moira for counseling, in part to explore the lingering pain stemming from the death of his brother when Steven was a child.
As the play opens, Steven begins treating a new patient, Lance, a disturbed young man who is skeptical about the therapeutic process; Lance’s journey will have unexpected repercussions for all the therapists in the play.
“One of the things that all these therapists are struggling with is their feeling of failure — feeling like they didn’t, or simply couldn’t, give somebody what they needed,” Bernhardt said. “The play explores their grappling with ‘What am I able to give, and what am I professionally bound to give, given what’s going on in my own life?’
Bernhardt, 51, grew up in a Conservative home in New Jersey and attended Brandeis University, where his interest in social work was sparked, in part, by a classmate who confided to him that she had attempted suicide while in middle school. “It was as if somebody shook me and said, ‘You’re not living in the real world,’ ” he said. After graduation, Bernhardt went on to co-develop a suicide-prevention program for Jewish schools in Boston and Los Angeles.
In 1994, he earned his double master’s degree, in social work and Jewish communal service, from USC and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion; along the way, dramatic events in his own life spurred him to become a writer.
“Right after Sept. 11, I was at the Ahmanson Theatre and somebody had a medical emergency, and the show stopped,” he said by way of example. “I knew that a friend of mine was elsewhere in the audience who had recently had medical issues, so I felt the anxiety of, ‘Is that him?’ [Bernhardt later discovered it wasn’t.] And at the same time, some friends in Israel had a son who had had a swimming accident and was in a coma. All these things had happened right around the time of Rosh Hashanah and were swirling around in my brain, so I felt I needed to create characters who were struggling with some of these issues.”
The result was Bernhardt’s dramatic reading, “Who Shall Live…?” which has since been performed around the time of the High Holy Days at synagogues throughout the United States; a recent trip to Germany prompted his 2010 play, “Mixed Blessings,” the story of how a straight Jewish college student and his gay German roommate push each other to explore their respective identities.
For “Therapy,” Bernhardt said he drew upon “what I, as a therapist, sometimes struggled with, which is how you put your own personal issues aside to help your client,” he said.
“I’m interested in writing about people who are human beings, who have vulnerabilities and weaknesses,” he added. “I am really interested in how all people struggle.”
“Therapy” runs through March 17. For tickets and information, call (800) 838-3006 or visit www.brownpapertickets.com/event/322663.