Like Ram Dass, Lynne Kaufman grew up in a Jewish home and feels a cultural connection to her roots. But the San Francisco playwright has something else in common with the spiritual seeker and teacher.
Kaufman, whose new play, “Acid Test: The Many Incarnations of Ram Dass,” charts his decades-long journey seeking and spreading inner peace, truth and love, also is drawn to people who are “transparent to the transcendent” and can “pierce the veil of ordinary reality.”
“A story, a teacher or an event can reveal to you the mystery of the world. I had that experience through the teachings of Joseph Campbell, and Ram Dass had that experience in India with his guru, Neem Karoli Baba,” Kaufman said.
“That kind of transformative experience has influenced all my plays. In them I always like to investigate somebody else’s stories and thoughts, and Ram Dass’ life is a vessel that contains emotions that I consider important.”
Kaufman described “Acid Test,” which runs through Nov. 24 at the Marsh in Berkeley, as funny and surprising. “It also looks at what’s good about life,” she said. “There are forces for positivity in the world, and Ram Dass is one of them.”
The author of more than a dozen books, most notably “Be Here Now” and “Still Here: Embracing Changing, Aging and Dying,” Ram Dass, 81, lives in Maui. Born Richard Alpert, he grew up in Newton, Mass. His father was a successful businessman, a philanthropist for Jewish causes and a founder of Brandeis University.
“The family identified as Jewish, but it was not a strongly religious home,” Kaufman said. “Ram Dass always said they celebrated the holidays, and that the only time they ate pork was at Christmas in Chinese restaurants.”
He revisited his Jewish identity in the early ’90s after giving a talk on Jewish spirituality. “The religion you were born with becomes more important to you as you see the universality of truth,” Ram Dass said in an interview at the time. “The one you start with is often the one you come back to.”
That’s another parallel Kaufman notes between Ram Dass’ life and her own. “If I follow any spiritual tradition, it will be within Judaism,” she said. “There is a cultural affinity by being Jewish, something about the intellectual life, the sense of humor and the warmth. I feel very grateful for all that, and proud.”
Before he was Ram Dass, Richard Alpert was a Harvard psychologist. He was dismissed from the faculty in 1963 allegedly for giving LSD to an undergraduate student, even though the drug was legal at the time. “Ram Dass took 377 trips on LSD,” Kaufman said, “and he always said that’s when his main religious experiences, spiritual experiences, happened.”
Kaufman noted that “virtually all of the play” is based on Ram Dass’ writings and talks. “The play examines this theme of how you think you understand everything and have it made — and then things shift and you have to come up with another way of living your life. Ram Dass has done that, and so he has had a tremendous influence on our culture,” she said.
Bay Area actor Warren David Keith plays Ram Dass, and Joel Mullennix directs.
Ram Dass has read the play. In fact, when Kaufman sent it to him, he mistakenly thought she intended to cast him. In an interview about a year ago, he told her he never works from a script and would be unable to play himself on stage. Kaufman assured him that was not her plan.
Kaufman, who is in her 60s, grew up in the Bronx. She attended Hunter College and earned a master’s degree in dramatic literature from Columbia University. She moved to San Francisco in the late 1960s when her husband, Steve, a pediatric endocrinologist, accepted a medical residency. They have two grown children and three grandchildren.
Though she had anticipated a career in teaching, Kaufman started writing short stories while her young children napped. To date, she has written three novels and more than 20 plays.
Over the years, Kaufman said, she has learned that the purpose of life “is to make sense of things.” Ram Dass has done that, she said, and the result is “the tremendous sense of oneness he feels with the universe, his sense of love, his sense that we all are connected.”
Kaufman paused and added, “In the play, you see that it doesn’t matter how you get there. No one religion or path or process is better than another. That’s what this play is really about, and it leaves you with a sense of hope.”
“Acid Test: The Many Incarnations of Ram Dass,” Thursdays-Saturdays through Nov. 24 at the Marsh, 2120 Allston Way, Berkeley. $15-$50. www.themarsh.org or (415) 282-3055.