STL native sees ‘Loving Leah’ adapted for small screen


The practice of a childless Jewish widow marrying her dead husband’s brother may seem antiquated — if not downright bizarre — to some, but St. Louis native and playwright P’nenah K. Goldstein saw it as the perfect dramatic vehicle. And apparently, she wasn’t alone.

On Sunday, Jan. 25, the prestigious Hallmark Hall of Fame series will feature a two-hour television special, Loving Leah, written by Goldstein based on her award-winning play of the same name. The play made its world debut at The New Jewish Theatre in St. Louis during its 2002 season.


The “quirky love story” revolves around the unexpected wedding and unconventional married life of a 26-year-old widow and her late husband’s brother, a handsome, 30-something cardiologist. In the Hallmark production, which will be the 235th in the long-running CBS series of quality dramas, Emmy Award nominee Lauren Ambrose (Six Feet Under) and Adam Kaufman (Without a Trace) star as the young couple, Leah and Jake Lever, whose marriage results from a little-known ancient Levirate marriage law. The cast also includes Academy Award winner Mercedes Ruehl (The Fisher King) as Jake’s non-religious mother and actress and talk-show host Ricki Lake (Hairspray) as a Reform rabbi.

During a recent visit to her hometown of St. Louis, Goldstein, who is single and now resides in Los Angeles, talked about her play being selected for the Hallmark Hall of Fame series. Goldstein, who is the daughter of Dorothy Goldstein and the late Melvin Goldstein, grew up in a Conservative Jewish home affiliated with Shaare Zedek Synagogue.

She vividly recalled that she was first drawn to the subject of the Levirate marriage at a very early age. “When I was 10, a relative died, and family members said, ‘Thank God she had children; otherwise she would have to marry her brother-in-law.’ I remember feeling that was a strange requirement and talked to my Dad about it.”

Goldstein explained that she became interested in the Hasidic Jewish community when she heard a St. Louis concert by the late Shlomo Carlebach. “I loved his performance and became interested in the joy of life emphasized by the Hasidic Jewish movement,” she said. “I felt that the Levirate marriage concept was a good vehicle for bringing together extremes in a drama and seeing how the characters work things out.”

Goldstein is not only pleased that her play, with such strong Jewish content and themes, is being shown on mainstream television, but also that “nearly every key person in the project is Jewish.” She notes that in addition to several of the leading actors and herself being Jewish, “so is the director, Jeff Bleckner; the producer, Michael Besman and the cinematographer, Charles Minsky, who did Pretty Woman and many other top films. This is a Jewish project from top to bottom,” she said.

During her student days at Parkway Central High School, Goldstein participated in Center Players, a local theatrical group that sponsored a children’s theater run by Rob Cohen and his wife, actress Lynn Cohen. The group staged productions such as Pinocchio and other children’s classics.

After graduating a year early from high school, Goldstein went to University of Wisconsin before transferring to New York University where she earned a bachelor’s degree in drama from the university’s acclaimed School of the Arts. She completed additional independent studies at the Manhattan Theatre Club. During her senior year at NYU, she got her first opportunity to appear in a New York play.

“I got a call and was asked to audition for a Hungarian play called Catsplay, directed by Lynne Meadow,” she said. “A lot of the play was in French and I was petrified, but I auditioned. I was awful but I got the job as an understudy and assistant stage manager.

“I recall that the actress who got the part for which I was an understudy told me if I ever wanted to act, she would just call in sick. I said I would let her know, but I clocked her in every day. I so did not want to get on the stage.”

Goldstein said that her initial interest in theater was in acting and producing. “Writing didn’t come until much later,” she said. “I got into stage managing. I was working professionally with (acclaimed theatrical) directors such as Michael Kahn, Lynne Meadow and Ed Sherin while I was still at NYU.”

Goldstein’s description of how her Loving Leah was accepted by Hallmark Hall of Fame makes for a fascinating lesson in the importance of networking, connections and most of all, patience. After the play was well-received at The New Jewish Theatre in 2002, artistic director Kathleen Sitzer called veteran St. Louis actor/director Wayne Solomon to tell him about it.

“Wayne had a colleague and close friend named Pam Miles at John Burroughs School, whose sister, Page Simpson, was a producer in London,” Goldstein said. “Page moved back to Los Angeles, looked at the script, loved it and optioned the play.

“Page then met with (producer) Michael Besman. Between Page’s connections and those of Michael Besman, the project got to Sidney Kimmel Entertainment, which produced Lars and the Real Girl and The Kite Runner.”

Of course anyone who has worked in Hollywood, notes Goldstein, knows that it isn’t unusual for even the most talked-about projects to be stalled or axed altogether. In the case of Loving Leah, after a regime change at Kimmel Entertainment in 2005, the optioned play went into “turn-around,” which meant anybody could pick it up, but would pay a price for it, Goldstein explained.

Eventually, Besman took over full control of the project. He found an independent producer and they put a director on it. Then came the Writers Guild Strike in 2007.

“While that was going on, I could do no business,” said Goldstein, noting that by then, more than four years had lapsed since the play was opinioned by Simpson.

Once the strike was finally settled in 2008, Besman had lunch with Ricki Lake, whose talk show had a big agency behind her. “(The agency) ICM loved this project, and they sent it over to Hallmark,” Goldstein said. “Michael had them read the script we originally developed at Kimmel. For a time, (Hallmark) changed the title to Unorthodox, but then they went back to the original, Loving Leah.

“The main thing is that they fell in love with it, and that’s where we go from here.”