Awake and singing

arts@sfbg.com

THEATER The company members onstage had started out just a couple of hours ago in literal harmony, joined in song. Now everyone appears spent, heated, and confused. They wonder what has happened to them. They wonder if they’ve lost their way; if their extraordinary effort and success over recent years has been worth anything. It’s a moment of truth, fraught with personal and collective drama, overshadowed by desperate and tumultuous times. The Group Theatre, arguably the most influential theater in American history, is about to disband.

At this point Harold Clurman, played by actor Michael Navarra, steps forward. In 1930, Clurman (with his Group co-founders Cheryl Crawford and Lee Strasberg) had led a year’s worth of Friday-night talks in which he laid out, in passionate ramblings, a vision for an American theater that didn’t yet exist. A decade later, much as the venture began, it ends with a Clurman speech. The few succinct lines shaped by Navarra seem to cradle for a moment the strife and disorder onstage, ringing out an eloquent justification of theater as a deep and enduring social enterprise.

Soon after this scene, the first run-through of In the Maze of Our Own Lives concludes on a rehearsal day in late September, but not without a subtle sense of histories converging. If playwright and director Corey Fischer drew on Clurman’s own language in fashioning this bit of rousing dialogue, its spirit no doubt draws too from three fervent decades with the Jewish Theatre (formerly A Traveling Jewish Theatre), his own well-known ensemble company founded with Naomi Newman and Albert Greenberg in 1978. In a chance conflation of theatrical destinies, the premiere of this ambitious, intelligent, soulful new play opens what TJT has announced will be its final season.

Sitting in roughly the middle of the house at the Jewish Theatre’s Florida Street home, Fischer thanks his cast and asks the production’s stage manager for the run time. After already massive cutting and reshaping, it seems the play could probably still stand to lose a few minutes from each act. But Fischer seems pleased with the results so far. The cast’s eight actors, meanwhile, are quietly taking in their own sense of the play as a whole, now that it’s fully up on its feet. Naomi Newman (who will debut a new play of her own about Grace Paley later in the season) has been getting her first glimpse of Maze from a seat in the third row. Not far away, outgoing artistic director Aaron Davidman has sheets of fresh notes to deliver to Fischer. It was Davidman who, five years ago, first discussed and developed with Fischer the idea of a play about the Group Theatre, after both had read John Lahr’s profile of Clifford Odets (the Group’s famous actor-turned-playwright) in the New Yorker.

It struck them both immediately, reading about Odets, that the Group was a natural, necessary subject for TJT to explore. “I don’t think the Group Theatre was ever self-consciously trying to do anything Jewish,” explains Fischer. “It just happened that a lot of them — Strasberg, Clurman, Odets, Stella Adler — they were coming directly from the only tradition of Jewish theater that ever existed: [the Yiddish theater]. It was more that in their focus on their America, that had to include the immigrant experience. That’s what they knew.

Of course, the breakthrough for Odets was writing about the people he knew. That’s what opened it up for a generation of writers, and not just theater writers. Morris Dickstein talks about Odets influencing Bernard Malamud and Grace Paley — which was fascinating because they happen to be the two non-theater writers whose work we have done the most through our Word for Word collaborations.”

A subject as grand and complex as the Group Theatre — which spawned many famous productions, plays, and artistic careers for stage and screen, influencing theater and filmmaking, theater training, and American literature at large — would present any playwright with a supreme challenge. This first run-through was proof Fischer and his colleagues had captured a coherent narrative with several key, interlocking strands in two well-shaped acts together totaling not much more than two hours. Although Fischer would eventually cut another 25 pages from the script before rehearsals were over, the play and the staging — which uses an appealing mix of media, original music, and ensemble movement to create a delicate dialogue between one company and its historical subject — was coming across persuasively.

In five years of researching the history of the Group, Fischer says he grew to appreciate a connection to these forebears he had not recognized at all when he, Newman, and Greenberg founded their company in Los Angeles (TJT relocated to the Bay Area in 1982). Fischer relates to the commitment, social and artistic, that drew the members of the Group together.

“Cheryl [Crawford] has this line, ‘We never used to fight like this when we were starving.’ Of course it’s not the whole story but, in other words, they came together because they needed each other to simply do the work they were called to do. They were a remarkable group, whatever their individual failings,” he continues. “What they had in common was they didn’t want to do commercial mainstream theater as it existed then. Clurman says of Chekhov’s characters: ‘I like them, they’re full of life, they’re not depressed, but they have no outlets in their society, so nothing means anything.’ Clurman gave Friday night talks for a year so people could just come and listen to this guy, this crazy rant, but that was the impulse.

I can’t remember who was just saying this about the current situation — I don’t know if it was about Wall Street, but this whole notion of talking crazy until enough people are listening — these world-changing movements start with one person and then grow to a few people in a small room. That’s how it starts.”

IN THE MAZE OF OUR OWN LIVES

Through Nov. 13

Previews Wed/19, 8 p.m.; opens Thurs/20, 8 p.m.; runs Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. (also Oct. 30, Nov. 6, and 13, 7 p.m.), $15-$35

The Jewish Theatre

470 Florida, SF

1-800-838-3006

www.tjt-sf.org