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Tracking 'Leah's Train'

February 12, 2009 By:
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Karen Hartman, whose work is now at New York's TBG Theatre

Trains of thought carry Karen Hartman's heartfelt haikus of drama to people of all stations of life. And now, a production of an award-winning work from 2000 has arrived on time and on message in a world-premiere production in 2009.

Traveling "Leah's Train" ... switching tracks, crossing cultures and picking up an Occidental tourist along the way has proved a Jewish journey of existential exigencies with exotic destinations.

And the last stop along the way may be the most exotic for this transgenerational train ride: Hartman's play, about "three generations of women from a Jewish family whose lineage spreads from Russia to present-day San Francisco," has just pulled into New York, where the National Asian American Theatre Company (www.naatco.org) has brought it off-Broadway to the TBG Theatre.

Funny, they don't look Jewish -- which is the point.

NAATCO's off-Broadway staging doesn't derail what the playwright -- a multiple fellowship winner with a number of other works focusing on Jewish gems, although not exclusively -- had hoped for: We are the world, after all, and does anybody really have the right timetable?

Hartman certainly does, with a track record that suggests searing insight into the baggage we all carry. The current production, directed by Jean Randich, is by no means a random switch on the gene pool; for the past 20 years, the company has staged Western classics with all-Asian American actors acclimated to the benefits of mental border crossings; "Leah's Train" is no different.

And why shouldn't such a corps of excellently trained actors find "Leah's Train" a treasure?

"They're really juicy roles," replies the playwright with a chuckle.

And, she points out, "powerful roles for women."

Jewish and otherwise -- and wisely chosen actors in what can only be hailed as grand central casting.

"There is a similarity of experience to the central questions of the play," opines Hartman.

"Is it enough to be an ambitious successful young person -- is that what your ancestors struggled for?"

Ancillary questions key in on other aspects of similarities, such as "issues of masculinity and femininity: Jewish men and women, and Asian men and women, in certain ways are similar in their approaches" to role-playing.

The roles on stage are far from linear; "Leah's Train," concedes the questing writer, "rides a line between realism and the magical."

Hop aboard the hope express?

"Every writer has to find how they can uniquely filter and interpret the world," she says.

Play ball -- and Hartman has. Her "Going Gone," described as "an exploration of desire and baseball in a Jewish home in Cincinnati in the 1930s," has traveled well on its red-stocking fete.

"Going Gone"? Is this a Jewish shout-out to the Harry Kalases of the world?

"I often find my way of thinking of family and history and politics [to be Jewish-oriented]," says the respected writer, whose current work sports an Oriental cast. "Although it was without my intending to be a writer of Jewish themes."

But why not write right from the heart -- and hearth?

"It's all informed of how I grew up and studied and who I am now," she says.

"Leah's Train" sidetracked by the very personal?

"Writing who you are doesn't have to be solely autobiographical," she claims. "Religion and culture live on many levels."

On one level, "Leah's Train" does punch some personal tickets: "It comes out of my family story, of a 12-year-old taking a train trip in Russia during World War I, a story that my great-great-great Aunt Pearl told of her childhood."

Teaching Moments
Great is right; the story unfolds on stage in a grandiloquent manner on a timetable of intersecting junctions. Hartman's own schedule has included teaching as part of a special program at New York's Public Theatre, and on the university level at Yale and Bennington colleges.

But it is the universal that teaches best and, in that, "Leah's Train" is Amtrak on time, without the delays. Indeed, as this play just opened off-Broadway, Hartman is off and running with another project: "Goldie, Max and Milk"

Got ... milk? More than that: It's got the cream of unorthodox comedy going for it, being a play about, as the writer sees it and pens it, "Max, a single lesbian mother of a newborn, and the only person who can help her -- an Orthodox Jewish lactation consultant, Goldie."

Sure, reports abound of playwrights in the past having to turn to the bottle -- but who knew it would be filled with the milk of human kindness, or, at the very least, be lactose tolerant?

Close to home?

The mother of a toddler born with a male partner, Hartman concedes some Max-imum impact; there was a time, she says, when she "was with women."

Where she is now is at the top of her art in a battle for beauty burnished by the real and the magical, as evidenced also in her real/surreal "Goliath," "about the Gaza pullout of 2005," which has suddenly "gotten super relevant."

As "Leah's Train" pulls out of its engagement at TBG Theatre later this month, the playwright hopes for more theatrical stops along the way with other topics on her mind as well.

Next stop: Jerusalem? Makes sense for one who's never hit the wall in focusing on the Western Wall.

"I've wanted to continue conversations about Israel that I started with 'Goliath,' " says this David of dialogues between diverse peoples. 

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