nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
February 9, 2009
Leah's Train is about Ruth, a young woman who has just become a doctor. She lives in San Francisco with her boyfriend, Ben (but he leaves her within the first few moments of the play). She is feeling guilty about having missed her grandmother's funeral. After Ben leaves, she boards a train, though she's frightened of trains. And she takes a journey that brings her to her mother, and her grandmother, and back to Ben...and back to herself.
Ruth's mother, Hannah, is a well-put-together woman who announces, when she sees Ruth, that she has left her husband, Walter. Ruth's grandmother—Hannah's mother—is Leah. On the train, where both Ruth and Hannah eventually encounter her, she's the 12-year-old girl of family legend, escaping pogroms and poverty in Russia for a new life in America. With her is her little nephew Joseph; they are searching for Leah's own Ben, a brother who disappeared in a Russian village and was never heard from again.
Hannah tells this ethereal little girl vision of Leah:
You become the kind of nurse whose patients call you Mom. You have discipline, energy, courage in abundance. In a world that teaches us to build tiny nests, you give of yourself to strangers.
How do you survive in the shadow of such fortitude, of such a legend? How do you survive in the shadow of that shadow? Leah's Train is a gorgeous play about coming to terms with family, with the past, with the challenges you never have to master, with the ghosts that sometimes hold you back. Playwright Karen Hartman does a masterful job juxtaposing the world of 1913 with the world of today on this single magical train, illustrating the strengthening and deepening bonds of a mother and daughter who embark on a journey that they never meant to take.
And director Jean Randich realizes Hartman's work beautifully, placing the soft, sepia-toned scenes of a century ago side by side with sharper and more vividly colored modern-day ones. Lighting designer Stephen Petrilli and costume designer Alexandra Gage Englund provide Randich with these palettes, while set designer Katheryn Monthei keeps things simple and spare on stage, with just a few chairs reconfigured this way and that to create the illusion of this long, long train that could never actually exist in real life.
Anchoring the cast is Mia Katigbak (artistic producer director of National Asian American Theatre Company, the producer of this show) in a warm, insightful, and funny performance as Hannah. Jennifer Ikeda is hard-edged and thoroughly contemporary as Ruth. Kristine Haruna Lee is convincingly 12 and disarmingly innocent and stolid as Leah, while young Raphael Aranas is fine as her nephew Joseph. Louis Osawa Changchien is an excellent foil for these women as Ben and, briefly, as a Russian soldier whom Leah encounters on her train.
I've deliberately kept the details sketchy in this review because Leah's Train is such a brilliantly surprising play, layered and dense and magical like a Russian Kachina doll. Though the story is very specifically about a Russian/Jewish family, there's a universality to this piece that transcends any particular place or ethnic group. It is instead a trip through time and space that is memorable, meaningful, and heartfelt. I recommend it.