As will surprise absolutely no-one, the train in Karen Hartman's play Leah's Train is a metaphor: "Time seems to stop on a train." This may clarify some of the delusional theater that follows, but it in no way justifies the tale of a mother, Hannah (Mia Katigbak), and daughter, Ruth (Jennifer Ikeda), caught in the shadow of their migratory ancestor, Leah (Kristine Haruna Lee). Saying that it does is akin to saying that anyone who prizes a kaddish cup, that apparently most synechdocal of objects, is Jewish. (Which is what this play does.) Nobody wants to see last-resort theater, but that's what Jean Randich's direction feels like: "We didn't connect with this play, but here's our best shot."
To everyone's credit, parts of that "best shot" work, with Randich using Stephen Petrilli's excellent lighting design to jump between the military train that Leah is using to escape from 1913 Russia and a twentieth-century Amtrak that Hannah, Ruth, and Ruth's soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend Ben (Louis Ozawa Changchien) are all on. The fragmented cuts between scenes and the use of ghostly double-casting (Changchien and the young Raphael Aranas) create a world in which cowardly daughters run the risk of forever living in their mother's shadows. In fact, this visual texture even smooths out some of the forced writing, such as in a scene where the four primary "modern" characters all "write" letters (monologues) that are, for some reason, similar.
But back to the metaphor: if time stops on a train, then so does movement. When things finally happen, they're compressed into an abrupt burst, as if catching up for all the prior meandering. Save for the natural chemistry between the needy Hannah and the sarcastic Ruth, this doesn't actually resolve much--in fact, it's just as artificial as everything that precedes it, from Ruth's convenient childhood trauma (if only we could all overcome such horror as easily as Ikeda) to Ben's abrupt decision to flirt with his ex-girlfriend's mother (to be fair, he doesn't know, but that means he has no artistic motivation to do so) to the way all three of these characters immediately come to terms with the shared fantasy that they are interacting with Leah.
A train is the wrong metaphor for this play, for Leah's Train is slowly paced, cramped in its characterizations, and awkwardly put together. But who'd want to see Leah's Bus?
Wednesday, February 11, 2009