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Theater Review: "The Coast Starlight"

“The Coast Starlight” plays through September 15, 2019 at La Jolla Playhouse’s Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive (on the UCSD campus).
Photo credit:
Jim Carmody

If you’ve ever sat on a bus or train and wondered about your fellow travelers, La Jolla Playhouse has just the play for you. 

Tyne Rafaeli directs Keith Bunin’s “The Coast Starlight,” in its world premiere through Sept. 15 at the Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre. Here six individuals traveling north from Los Angeles to Seattle will share a train car for varying lengths of time and wonder about each other. Some will talk to others; some will imagine conversations and actions. All have dreams and disappointments; all are in some sort of crisis.

T.J. (Nate Mann) has an overstuffed knapsack on his back and a life-altering decision to make. A marine medic in the Navy, he is back from Afghanistan and scheduled to report in hours for another tour of duty there. He is considering deserting

Jane (Camila Cano-Flavia) has a duffle bag at her feet, a messenger bag slung across her shoulders, and a sketchpad in her hands. She starts sketching T.J. as soon as she sees him on the other end of the aisle.

T.J. and Jane are in their 20s, attracted to each other at first glance, and will spend much of the 90-minute runtime of the play fantasizing about each other.

The other characters are in their 30s-40s. Liz (Mia Barron) looks like she literally threw some stuff into a suitcase and climbed onto the train. She gets on in Salinas, in the middle of a loud phone conversation which continues on the train. She has funny things to say about couples workshops of the type that hippies used to go to at Esalen, way back when. She teaches exercise classes.

Noah gets on in San Luis Obispo, headed for his mother’s place in Klamath Falls. Noah spent several years in the Army in Afghanistan.

Ed (Rob Yang), in dress shirt and pants, gets on in San Jose. He works for Invention Publicity, trying to sell what he describes as “mostly useless junk.” Of himself, he says “I’m nowhere near the person I intended to be, but I’m the only person I can be under the circumstances.”

Lesbian mom Anna (Stephanie Weeks) gets on in San Francisco, headed home to Olympia. She’s just identified her brother’s body. He was a promising future scientist who got derailed by drugs. She’s never told her sons about their uncle.

The anchors here are Jane, T.J. and Noah. Jane wants to make a movie about immigrants, but it’s clear from her imaginary conversation that she’d like most to hook up with T.J.

Will they? Will he desert or go back to the base in time to report in?

Fellow (retired) soldier Noah has an opinion on that. So do several of the other passengers. They also have opinions on other things, mostly interesting ones.

Lots of conversation (some imaginary, much funny) goes on in this most unusual play. Bunin’s ability to write believable characters and to make us care about them keeps us interested, for the most part.

One change I would make is in the character of Anna. She seems more a representative of several groups (lesbians, affluent people with a drug-addicted family member, Quakers) than an actual person for the audience to relate to.

Arnulfo Maldonado’s train car (sounds like a toy, but it moves in strange and wonderful ways) sets the scene well is aided by Denitsa Bliznakova’s costumes, Lap Chi Chu’s lighting and Daniel Kluger’s sound design and original compositions.

I know some of these people. I’ll bet you will too. Either way, you’ll spend an enjoyable 90 minutes watching them reinvent their lives.

The details

“The Coast Starlight” plays through September 15, 2019 at La Jolla Playhouse’s Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive (on the UCSD campus)

Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 pm; Thursday and Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 and 7 pm.