Although 2.5 Minute Ride is a one-woman show, Leah Walton doesn’t expect to feel alone onstage.
“When I did an early run-through, it was so wonderful to tell these stories to people and hear their reactions,” said Walton, a 2015 Theatre Philadelphia Barrymore Award winner as best supporting actress in Field Hockey Hot. “So, in a sense, it doesn’t feel like a one-person show, because we are in this together.”
Lisa Kron, better known for writing the lyrics for the 2015 Tony Award-winning musical Fun Home, wrote Ride in 1999. It’s the true story of her emotional journey to Germany and, from there, to Auschwitz with her father, who’s in failing health after escaping the Nazis through Kindertransport as a child.
In the process, she examines not only his life but the rest of her family’s, including her brother, who got married after meeting his bride on the internet. Describing the character as a queer Jewish woman, the play also touches upon Kron’s relationship with her partner, Peg.
Walton wouldn’t say which aspects of Kron’s life embody her own, but she strongly identifies with Kron’s Jewish connection as well as her ability to tell stories.
“I’m Jewish, and this story deals with many Jewish themes and speaks very much to the father-daughter relationship,” Walton said. “Then there’s the sort of ownership we have of certain stories, the ties we have to history and what it means to be a part of a people who survived this genocide and how we continue to live through that. The story, especially in this age when we’re seeing anti-Semitism in new and profound ways in America, is very important to me.”
Anti-Semitism hits close to home for Walton, who wouldn’t go into specifics except to say how much it affected her.
“I faced some very overt anti-Semitism,” she said. “How I reacted depended on the time in my life. Sometimes I brushed it off. Sometimes I laughed it off. Other times I felt scared. Other times it made me angry and I wanted to fight back. Sometimes it just confused and surprised me.
“It is very complicated to face a kind of bigotry because of your religious and cultural identity and to know that for centuries people who prayed the way you prayed and believed the things you believed and looked the way you looked were persecuted. It’s difficult to live your life without that being a specter within it.”
The title refers to the two-and-a-half minutes it takes to ride a famed roller coaster at Cedar Point amusement park in Sandusky, Ohio. It’s a metaphor for the way Kron examines the ups and downs of her life.
That’s what makes telling her story meaningful to Walton, who grew up in a town outside Albany, N.Y., where her father ran a Jewish delicatessen. She studied drama at Ithaca College, spending part of that time at the Moscow Art Theatre School and the Gate Theatre in London.
That’s where she became interested in the theatrical technique of Michael Chekhov, nephew of famed playwright Anton Chekhov. The technique, which emphasizes body movement to portray emotions, is something she’s incorporated into her performances, in addition to what she teaches at Temple University.
“Chekhov liked things to be much more imagination-based,” said Walton, who started teaching acting while still in graduate school at Temple. “Science has shown the way we use our body truly changes our brains. He deeply believed in using the body to inspire imagination.”
Walton discovered her own inspiration researching Kron after Theatre Horizon Artistic Director Erin Riley suggested she do the play.
“Doing research into Lisa Kron, I found she liked to do storytelling and immediately felt a connection,” said Walton, who’s never met Kron. “Having this opportunity to play a Jewish woman is very special for me. I’ve been doing theater for many years. This piece has been very successful and resonated for me. It’s about Jewish identity. Her brother marries a Jewish woman, and she speaks about that ceremony. While she doesn’t speak about the holidays or other Jewish events, her Jewish ruach comes through.”
The word reminds Walton of her youth.
“I had a Bat Mitzvah, then went to the JCC summer camp in Schenectady, [N.Y.],” she recalled. “I won the ruach award, because I was full of spirit.”