September 19, 2019

Ghosts, guilt and a Jewish lawyer collide in ‘Rainbow Bridge’

A nice Jewish lawyer contends with the spirits of his late mother and sister, who awaken his lifelong feelings of guilt, in the farcical play “The Rainbow Bridge,” now running at the Ruskin Group Theatre in Santa Monica.

“When you come from a family with many issues, and you go on to lead kind of a normal life, and you know a lot of people go through a lot of suffering, it’s kind of hard to move on,” said the  playwright, Ron Nelson. “Sometimes there’s guilt involved, and I wanted to sort of work through all those issues. I wanted to work through all of them in the guise of writing a farce.”

The action begins as Jerry (Paul Schackman), a criminal defense attorney, has just had his sick dog euthanized by an oversexed veterinarian, Miss Stein (Jaimi Paige). During a moment alone with his dead dog, Jerry reads a poem on the vet’s wall called “The Rainbow Bridge,” about how pets cross over that bridge after death, but one day, in the afterlife, they will be reunited with their owners.

As he reads, a rainbow appears and the ghosts of his mother, Lois (Lynne Marie Stewart), and sister, Amanda (Mary Carrig), emerge. They upbraid him for having the dog they left to him killed, and Amanda insists that if he had helped her care for their mother, she (Amanda) probably never would have shot herself. Lois chimes in, saying that if Amanda hadn’t shot herself, she (Lois) wouldn’t have slipped in all the blood and fallen to her death trying to save her daughter.

Nelson said the characters and events were inspired by real life, then broadened and fictionalized. His sister and mother actually did die five years ago, in ways analogous to the deaths of the two ghosts. “In the play, one is a suicide, and in real life, one was as well. And the other was in an accident — not the same way,” he said. “Quite frankly, I made it different to make it more comedic, which may seem odd to people, but I wanted to make sure it wasn’t just awful and oppressive. I wanted to somehow make this fun, and that was part of the challenge of it.

“The thing that’s real are the feelings. Other than that, everything’s made up.”

He added that he prefers to keep the details of the actual deaths vague, out of respect for his relatives. “I’m happy to talk about the emotional effect on me, which has a lot in common with the issues Jerry goes through in the play. And a lot of that had to do with survivor’s guilt.”

Nelson has created Amanda and Lois to be outrageous characters. Both are depicted as having been alcoholics who attended AA meetings only to meet potential drinking buddies. They were also promiscuous.

Amanda isn’t certain about who was the father of her baby, and Lois had an affair with a fellow school board member in her house while young Jerry was at home. In fact, she is so resentful of that man’s wife, who is still alive, that she insists Jerry kill the woman as the price of freeing himself of the two ghosts. When the two threaten to ruin every aspect of his life, Jerry finally agrees, enlisting the help of Theodore (Emille Thomas), a lovable arsonist whom Jerry once successfully defended. It is at the scene of the intended murder that Jerry’s issues are finally resolved.

Nelson, an occasionally practicing defense attorney, said he didn’t want the play to be merely about a wonderful guy and his miserable family, so he gave the main characters a chance to defend their positions and explain why they feel hurt.

In fact, Nelson feels the theme of unresolved family issues is a universal one. “I can’t tell you how many people have actually come up to me and said, ‘I have unresolved issues with my father, who passed away,’ or ‘my mother, who passed away,’ or ‘my brother,’ or ‘my sister,’ whatever. And they were really able to relate to the journey of the main character.”

The main character and his family are Jewish, partly for cultural reasons, according to Nelson. “There is kind of an interesting thing that is more of a subtext than a text,” he said. “Almost in a wonderful way, there are certain Jewish families I’ve known, including mine, that can be messy and loud and full of angst.”

As for his family members’ level of observance, the playwright referred to them as “Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Passover Jews,” and to himself as very, very secular. “On the other hand,” he continued, “not a day passes by when I don’t self-identify as a Jew.”

He said that he sends his daughter to an excellent private Catholic school. However, “Although I never go to temple, the week before we started sending her to that school I went out and bought myself a chai that I wear on a chain around my neck, so anyone could see it whenever I dropped her off or picked her up. I wanted everybody at that school to know that there was one Jew who was paying them a significant amount of money every year for his daughter to get an education.”

Nelson concluded with the hope that his play will help audiences feel a little less isolated. “I hope people are able to relate to the journey of the lead character and feel that, if he was able to find his way through this, then maybe we can, too.” he said. “I hope people feel better when they leave, rather than worse. I know — not having anything to do with my script, but having to do with the production — I know they’ll have a good time. I hope they’ll feel a little less alone, too.”

“The Rainbow Bridge” is playing at Ruskin Group Theatre, 3000 Airport Ave., Santa Monica, through Sept. 17. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets: (310) 397-3244. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets: (310) 397-3244 or visit