By LIZ BYRON. Leah’s Train is officially the first play I have ever seen that included time travel without a trace of science fictioniness (real word). It’s also the first production I’ve seen that involved Jewish migrants during wartime that didn’t depress me, and one of the only times I’ve seen an actor under the age of 14 who didn’t make me roll my eyes. So, kudos to this joint production by 20% Theatre and Sabes Jewish Community Center for those points alone, but there is so much more praise to give about this play, which manages to pack love, laughter, tragedy, and a lot of trains into 90 enjoyable minutes.
In Leah’s Train, the titular Leah has just passed away, leaving her daughter to mourn the loss, her granddaughter to try to live up to the matriarch’s legend, and the both of them to struggle with their fractured relationship. The story is told through a series of train rides, as the past and present intersect and the relationships between the three generations are explored. Ruth and her mother Hannah encounter a teenaged Leah in some sort of waking, communal dream — time travel, really, but the how and why of these meetings are never explored. A wise choice; any explanations would pull the story into science fiction or confusing pseudo-science; instead, Karen Hartman‘s script stays focused on the relationships, which is what really pulls the audience in.
What is fascinating about this story was how much it tells us about the importance of perspective. From young Leah’s perspective, her adventures were a necessary step to create a better life for herself and her children, while her daughter Hannah sees these same adventures as a heroic quest. Granddaughter Ruth, on the other hand, sees only a larger-than-life story that she can never live up to. What Leah meant to give her future grandchildren as a gift, Ruth feels as a burden.
One of the marks of a good story is its universality. Does it stand the test of time? Can it transcend location, set changes, actors? Does it have something to say to everyone? Is a play at a Jewish Community Center going to be of interest outside a Jewish community? I would argue that, in this case, the answer to all these questions is yes — in particular the last question. Yes, Leah is a Jew, but while that is clearly a large part of her identity, it isn’t the only thing that makes her who she is, and it isn’t the driving force of the play. It’s part of it, certainly, but if you’ve never read the Torah and you don’t speak Hebrew or Yiddish, you’ll still feel the entirety of the impact of this play.
Set and prop designer Grete Bergland creates a space that is versatile and visually interesting, but simple, which keeps the focus on the characters — a smart choice, given that this is absolutely a story about people and their relationships, not about big events or wild action or things. Each character has their complexities and their personal development; there are no good guys or bad guys, and everybody is just so human. Jessica Smith does an admirable job as the confused and hurt Ruth, while Gina Sauer is just delightful as her mother who is struggling with the loss of her mother, the angst of her relationship with her own daughter, and still rejoicing on her own new lease on life. As Ruth’s boyfriend Ben, Kevin Fanshaw could speak up a little, but is otherwise a charmingly clueless young man. Laura Mason as young Leah is earnest and touching, while Zel Weilandgruber is fabulous in both his roles, with comedic timing that is all the more impressive considering his youth — and it helps that Hartman’s script gives the young boy lines true to his age (I’m always confused when plays feature 9-year-olds who use words like “therefore” and “furthermore”!).
Overall, Leah’s Train is a quiet, touching story that is well-told, performed here by a strong cast. It offers a wonderful opportunity to reflect on the nature of family, of how stories get passed along and how people change, of how we relate to each other, of how our pasts shape our futures.
Leah’s Train by Karen Hartman, by 20% Theatre Company, presented in partnership with Sabes Jewish Community Center, runs March 7-22, 2015 at the Sabes Jewish Community Center, 4330 Cedar Lake Road S, Minneapolis, MN. Tickets $5-25 sliding scale available at firstname.lastname@example.org / 952-381-3499 / http://www.tctwentypercent.org/archive/leahs.html or at the door.