Thursday, August 29, 2019

Wishful Thinking Aboard "The Coast Starlight”

There’s a lot going on in the minds of those aboard "The Coast Starlight” by Keith Bunin, developed last year under the DNA New Work Series at the Playhouse and aptly directed by Tyne Rafaeli. It is in a world premiere production and is currently on stage at the Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre through Sept. 15.

The Coast Starlight leaves Los Angeles heads north and reaches its destination of 1377 miles, in Seattle in a about 35 hours and makes 28 stops along the way. It’s definitely not the starlight express but for the passengers aboard on this particular trip, the only one passenger, T.J. (Nate Mann), might have been better off if time stood still.
Mia Barron, Rob Yang, Stephanie Weeks, Nate Mann, Camila Cano-Flavia and Rhys Coiro
There's lots going on with the six passengers who connect with each other on different levels; some fit into the community at large, others are played out in the imagination or minds of what might have been said/done or changed minds.

Seldom do strangers on a train speak with one another. At one time I did have a lovely train partner from the Netherlands while traveling across Australia where we spent three days in the small cabin that was made into sleeping quarters at the end if the day. We actually became friends and exchanged visits.

And of course there was the trip across the country, from San Diego to Boston on the then Sky Chief (runner up to Amtrack) by train with my husband way back when. That trip took, I can’t even remember how many days but we did it both ways.  I love train travel. I’m a fan

Training it to Washington, DC, or New York or Florida was common- place in my younger days, as were the trips to LA to see friends and or theatre. I could almost identify with the activity or lack thereof of the six characters headed north on this day.
Camila Cano-Flavia, Rhys Coiro, Mia Barron and Nate Mann
Under  Rafaeli’s astute direction, those we met on the Coast Starlight, with the exception of T.J. and Jane (Camila Canó-Flavio) boarded at different stops. These two climbed aboard at Union Station in Los Angeles where we learn they noticed each other but never spoke. With almost nothing in common to get to know each other or not as the train ran north to Seattle, four more characters complete the trip together.  

 It’s made clear at the start that there was chemistry between Jane and T.J., but no conversation and late regrets. She was a sketch artist traveling north to see and possibly break with her boyfriend and he was a medic in the military, running away from his past with the idea of deserting his post at Camp Pendleton rather than being sent back to Afghanistan.

By the time we learn of his dilemma, he had fourteen hours to decide. It was the biggest decision of a lifetime, one that would forever alter his life and, and in some way have an effect on those around him that night. At the outset verbal exchanges might have happened or not but they let us in on what their thoughts were.

Noah (Rhys Coiro) got on at San Louis Obispo headed to Klamath Falls to stay with his ailing mother. Scruffy looking “He looked like somebody who’d had a rough time of it for a while”…. Jane observed. “I figured from his bag that he’d been a soldier.” (T.J.) “You go on the run, you’re a traitor.” (Noah)

Liz (Mia Barron), a lightning rod gets on in Salinas, cell phone on ear and ranting about being thrown out of a retreat (Esalen Institute): “They start off by talking by talking about techniques for improving our sex lives, which meant I had to imagine them having sex, and that was like imagining two stalks of celery having sex.” That excursion would be the end of her narriage.

Barron is simply a hoot as her ranting’s are loud enough and steamy with language to send enough energy to pull the emergency chord. Oblivious to all around her, she manages to attract everyone’s attention before she’s done. ‘Does she know we all can hear her?” (Jane). She was talking so loud, it drowned out everything I was thinking.”(T.J.)
Cast of The Coast Starlight
Traveling salesman Ed (Rob Yang), exhausted and downtrodden, is the next to board. They were now passing San Jose (first capitol of California chime Noah) and talk of the song became part of the conversation along with Ed’s half inebriated confessions of motels he has slept in to earn his living selling. “For the past three years I’ve been working as the California representative for a company called Investors Publicity. It’s barely a real company”

Last but not least to join is Anna (Stephanie Weeks) who is headed back to Olympia just having been to San Francisco (Mission District) to identify her brother’s body. Of the six, I found her story more like of add on that if left off might not have changed the outcome or dynamic of the interactions of the rest.

Of the six, the shared stories and exchange of experiences shared by Noah and T.J. are the most insightful, truthful and meaningful. Noah, down on his luck and living on someone else’s boat (sort of boat sitting) has some pretty straight talk to T.J. who, young and vulnerable with no immediate family to advise finally must make his decision; to go back and finish his duties, or go AWOL.

We all have stories, some more compelling than others. Strangers on a train, traveling for some 35 hours together gives credence to the fact that after a while, communications and curiosity will break down the sound barrier and eventually, we will share, meditate and wonder silently, if I had only spoken my thinking, how much more interesting these hours might have been.

With a more than competent, gifted and straightforward ensemble Bunin’s “The Coast Starlight” offers some interesting ideas and impressions (there is almost no action save the moving of the seats on the train designed by Arnulfo Maldonado) in the art of communication without ever having a dialogue.
Rhys Coiro, Rob Yang, Camila Cano-Flavia, Nate Mann, Stephanie Weeks and Mia Barron
Lap Chi Chu designed the effective lighting and Denitsa Bliznakova the contemporary costumes and while I expected to hear something resembling train sounds in the background and passing scenery on the screen behind, none was there.  I’ll have to revert back to Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Read My Mind”.

It’s new; it’s different and has great storytelling. If you are in the mood for a meditative sans action this is a great place to start.


See you at the theatre.
Dates: Through Sept.15th
Organization: La Jolla Playhouse
Phone: 858-550-1010
Production Type: Comedy
Where: 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla, CA 92037
Ticket Prices: Start at $20.00
Venue: Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre
Photo: Jim Carmody

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