Hal Linden and Mare Winningham in Lessons
(Photo © Ed Krieger)
Hal Linden and Mare Winningham in Lessons
(Photo © Ed Krieger)
Lessons, the poignant and humorous new play by Wendy Graf at the Lee Strasberg Creative Center, is a love story -- but it's not about the love between a man and a woman. Rather, it's people's love of religion, tradition, and God that interests Graf.

"It's never too late to learn," one of the show's opening lines, expresses the evening's theme. Ben, a boisterous widower, wants to reaffirm his Judaism with a bar mitzvah. He finagles Ruth -- a washed-out divorcée, ex-rabbi, and language teacher who has lost her faith -- into tutoring him. It becomes quickly apparent that Ruth, damaged by her past, requires a diamond miner to pick away at her frozen exterior and reach the gem inside. Ben becomes her guide back to the human race.

From the opening scene, Ben and Ruth's differences are evident. His joie de vivre shines like a beacon, but her desolation clouds his natural glow. For Ben, every topic is fodder for conversation or an anecdote, while Ruth hides in her cave of a condo. Their friendship soon becomes a tug-of-war. Winningham does a beautiful job of allowing Ruth's rage to bubble below the surface. Linden lightens the drama with a huckster charm appropriate for Ben -- a running-shoe salesman who, in his sports jacket, dress shirt and running shoes, gives the impression of an eager child. When Ruth eventually warms to Ben, it does not seem like a script contrivance but, rather, the result of Linden's verve.

The script offers some nice symbolism; for example, Graf includes a portion of the Torah that describes the characters' inner turmoil. Of course, the name Ruth is no accident: Ruth was King David's grandmother, who converted to Judaism because she loved how Jews took care of each other in times of need. But you don't have to be a member of the tribe to understand the play. My non-Jewish guest found that Lessons served as a primer on the Hebrew language and Jewish traditions while not seeming at all didactic.

As is rather common these days, the play is written in vignette format. Some scenes do not end on a moving or humorous note; instead, they just fizzle off, as if missing a punctuation mark. Also, long blackouts are needed to reset the stage and props between scenes, and these weaken the tension that is skillfully built up by the stars. (This is something that director Adam Davidson should have attended to.) The other significant problem with this production is that much of the impact of the play rests on the shoulders of Montana Tsai, who plays Ben's granddaughter, Amanda. We need moxie from Tsai but, instead, we got petulance.

Working on a limited budget, the technical team creates stage magic. Laurence Bennett's set is an authentic-looking condo filled with appropriate details, from the linoleum flooring to a sliding glass door and Venetian blinds. The gray walls express the banality of both a generic Los Angeles home and Ruth's sad existence. Lighting designer J. Kent Inasy creates the impression of a smoggy night, smoky and reddish tinted; when Ruth goes out on the patio, you'd swear she was actually standing outdoors.

Lessons is a thought-provoking, tender tale of rebirth that benefits greatly from the performances of the vastly talented Linden and Winningham.