The play "Leah's Train" touches on universal themes about what constitutes family.

That's what drew Claire Avitabile to Karen Hartman's script in the first place. One of her favorite lines is, "Family is made, not born."

Avitabile doesn't have a big family, so "most of the people I consider family, I'm not related to," she said. The play also raises questions such as, "Can we dismiss our roots entirely? Is it possible to have a clean slate in life, to forget the past or shut out the people we're truly tied to?"

20% Theatre Company, a group that Avitabile founded in 2006, is staging the regional premiere of "Leah's Train" in partnership with and taking place at the Sabes Jewish Community Center in St. Louis Park. The show runs through March 22.

The theater company focuses on female and transgender emerging artists and highlights new works. Coincidentally, Hartman, who is based in Seattle, is affiliated with the Playwrights' Center in Minneapolis.

Avitabile, who serves as the director of performing arts at the Sabes Jewish Community Center, had been looking for a chance for the theater company to partner with the center. 20% doesn't have its own venue, so it performs in various places around town and beyond.

When she happened upon "Leah's Train," it seemed ideal. "I realized it had a Jewish connection, and it has a beautiful story, plus strong roles for women," Avitabile said.

Chava Curland, the show's director, is in her second stint with 20%. For her, the play seemed like an interesting challenge, as much of it rests on the dialogue and the subtext. "We really need to dig to find hidden layers," she said.

As the title suggests, the five cast members spend most of their time in transit on trains. The story is set in present-day San Francisco, though it includes some flashbacks to 1913 Russia.

It centers on the relationships among three generations of women in one family. Leah, the grandmother, has died, and her daughter, Hannah, and granddaughter, Ruth, are grappling with that, along with their own differences, Curland said.

Ruth "wants to separate from her mother and from this larger-than-life grandmother," Curland said. She has to figure out how she fits into her lineage and in time and space. "I see it as about a young woman's journey in reconciling the past," Curland said.

In the play, Leah is portrayed as a 12-year-old in Russia, hopping military trains. She's escaping unrest, though the specifics are unclear. She scours the country for her brother, Benjamin, and her nephew, Joseph. The action is partly based on letters that are part of the playwright's family history.

She researched what was going on in Russia at that time. The revolution was just beginning to bubble up, and prejudices against Jews were mounting.

For Curland, who also has a Jewish heritage, "I feel similar themes in my own life." Her father was born in Uzbekistan as a refugee in 1945. Members of his family originally lived in Poland, fled to Siberia, then Uzbekistan. They were denied access to Israel, and ended up in Berlin before arriving in New York City in 1951, she said.

"The way Hartman blends the stories is so artful," Curland said. "It almost reads like a musical composition." At the same time, it's very realistic, she said.

Curland also listened to train noises and sifted through related images. The set is very atmospheric, with different platforms that transport people into the "world of shifting cars."

Some moments are lighthearted and joyful, while others are about "grieving what we've lost in the past. It's a roller-coaster of human emotions," Curland said.

Finding common ground

In fleshing out Ruth's character, Jessica Smith, who plays her, tried to find where she "lets loose and where she tightens up."

Ruth feels that she can never live up to her grandmother's trek across Russia so many years ago. "It's been haunting her for her whole life," Smith said.

When she doesn't attend her grandmother's funeral, a wedge opens between her and her mother, Hannah.

Throughout the play, though, Ruth starts to see how things are connected. For example, she and Leah are bound by an interest in the medical field. Ruth is a doctor and her grandmother was a nurse.

Also, just as family members might have similar mannerisms, the characters in the play sometimes repeat the same lines, unknowingly, Smith said. The play is "very dialogue-driven. It's a workout to keep it up."

Eventually, Ruth realizes that overlooking her past is keeping her from reaching her fullest potential, Smith said.

Smith spent plenty of time trying to communicate Ruth's persona, physically. She describes Ruth as "a little socially awkward."

Also, she's a practical, straightforward person, while her mother has a flair for the dramatic. Smith likes the message of the play. "Sometimes I feel like family is underrated in our culture," she said. "I hope that people take away that having friends is important, but you can't forget your history, even if it's not all pleasurable. To deny your familial connections is to deny a part of yourself."

A big personality

Gina Sauer, whose plays Hannah, said Leah's death triggers a midlife crisis for her. On top of that, she wants to mend her relationship with Ruth.

Unlike Ruth, "Hannah has a very big personality. She's very expressive, a bit domineering, and she tends to be a little manic at times," Sauer said.

Hannah uses her hands a lot to express her emotions." Sauer, too, often talks with her hands, so that part wasn't a big stretch for her.

The text and artistic aspects come together to "create this world, to make it a moving experience — the feeling of motion, lives passing each other," she said. "They all want to reconnect with someone or get a do-over."

Sauer found plenty in common with her character. They're around the same age, and Sauer has recently reinvented herself in some ways.

Not too long ago, somebody asked Sauer about what she was going to do with herself, being an empty nester. "I hadn't thought about it, but I just blurted out, 'I'm getting back into acting,' " she said.

So, after a 20-plus-year hiatus, she has returned to the stage. lt perfectly natural. "The second I stepped onstage, I felt at home, like I had never left," Sauer said.

As such, the play's theme about second chances resonates with her. "You always have a second chance to change your life," she said.

Anna Pratt is a Minneapolis freelance writer. She can be reached at