I’ve ridden the Coast Starlight train from Los Angeles to Seattle and over the 36 hours that are required to make the trip observed that as with most modes of mass travel, strangers don’t talk to each other.
For the most part, they don’t talk to each other either in Keith Bunin’s play The Coast Starlight, a world-premiere production at La Jolla Playhouse that grew out of a commission from the theater and which was workshopped in the Playhouse’s DNA New Work Series. But here’s where Bunin’s ingenuity comes to the fore: throughout the 100 minutes, the characters imagine and even act out what they might have, perhaps should have said to each other. Far more than a cute device, this makes The Coast Starlight an introspective tale about what goes unspoken and what’s left unsaid, and how missed opportunities or moments unseized may leave behind an emptiness.
Medic T.J. (Nate Mann) boards the northbound train in L.A. after having deserted his post at Camp Pendleton. He wants no part of a deployment to Afghanistan. On his way to exactly where he isn’t sure, T.J. encounters fellow passengers harboring their own secrets or anguish: Animation artist Jane (Camila Cano-Flavia) is headed for Seattle to rendezvous (or break up) with her long-distance boyfriend. Caustic military veteran Noah (Rhys Coiro) is on his way to be with his ailing mother in Redding, Calif. Noisy and profane Liz (Mia Barron) has left her jerk of a husband after a tell-all weekend at the Esalen retreat and is seeking refuge in Portland. Ed (Rob Yang) is drunk and trying to escape a career of chain hotels and rental cars that’s eating him alive. And Anna (Stephanie Weeks) has just identified the body of her dead, drug-abuser brother. These circumstances are revealed in what-might-have-been scenarios that are reflected through quietly tortured T.J.’s earnestness and good heart.
Tyne Rafaeli directs the cast members portraying the passengers on a raised, rotating stage adorned with nothing more than familiar-looking train seats. Like the characters’ understanding of each other’s desperations, any changing scenery of the traveling Coast Starlight or other railway-car props are left to the imagination.
The contemplative tone established early in the going when only T.J. and the sweetly curious Jane are onstage lasts only as long as it takes for the brassy Liz character to heighten the volume, followed by the laughs at hapless (and initially hostile) Ed’s expense. Eventually, though, the tenor of The Coast Starlight settles into a pensiveness that challenges us all to consider our choices, on or off a train.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 8/28/19.)
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.