A train track runs across the ceiling in Katheryn Monthei’s set design for Karen Hartman’s Leah’s Train, now receiving its world premiere from the National Asian American Theatre Company (NAATCO) at the TBG Theatre. The image sets up a feeling of disorientation that both the play and the production reflect.
The central characters within Hartman’s play are Russian Jews and their American descendants. However, the entire cast is comprised of Asian American actors, in keeping with NAATCO’s mission to provide Asian American artists with acting opportunities in roles not usually made available to them. The casting choice is not played for comic effect; on the contrary, while the actors bring out the humor within the script, it’s the more grounded emotional and dramatic moments that have the greatest impact.
Ruth (Jennifer Ikeda) is trying to cope with the sudden departure of her boyfriend Ben (Louis Ozawa Changchien), the abrupt arrival of her mother Hannah (Mia Katigbak) who has just left her husband, and the recent death of her maternal grandmother Leah (Kristine Haruna Lee) who haunts Ruth’s imagination. In particular, Ruth is obsessed by the story of a 12-year-old Leah riding alone on a Russian train, avoiding soldiers and facing other dangers while searching for her missing brother and cousin. Ruth embarks on her own train journey, looking for Ben who has gone off on a cross-country trip in search of himself, with both of their paths intersecting with Hannah, a mysterious young boy (Raphael Aranas), and in a time-bending encounter, Leah herself.
Ikeda nicely captures Ruth’s contradictions, seeming cold and unfeeling one moment, then caring and even vulnerable the next. Katigbak brings a warm humanity to a role that could easily slide into stereotype and mere comic relief. Lee convincingly plays a 12-year-old trying to behave more maturely than her own age. Changchien portrays Ben a little too stiffly, and doesn’t quite capture the character’s hunger for new experiences and meaning in his life. Aranas also doesn’t achieve much depth in either of his two relatively small roles.
The script is filled with coincidences and surreal moments, and it’s to the credit of director Jean Randich and her cast that the action never seems too unbelievable. The production wisely focuses on the human touches rather than the fantastic, ultimately telling a simple and moving tale about a family and the ways it deals with grief and sacrifice.