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A CurtainUp Review
Leah's Train

Leah was eleven when her nephew Joseph convinced her little brother Ben to sail from Russia to America. They thought they could get there in a local boat. —Hannah
Leah's Train
Kristine Haruna Lee (left) as Leah and Raphael Aranas (right) as Joseph
(Photo: Michael OU)
After nearly twenty years of presenting revivals of western stage classics with all Asian-American actors, the National Asian American Theatre Company (NAATC) is expanding its mission to include works from other cultures. The first such venture is the company's world premiere of Lean's Train by Karen Hartman.

Hartman's play, about three generations of Jewish women, takes the audience from present-day San Francisco to pre-revolutionary Russia and back again. Much of the action takes place on board trains as the various characters attempt to move toward or away from their fate.

The play begins when Ruth (Jennifer Ikeda), a young doctor living in San Francisco with her boyfriend, Ben (Louis Ozawa Changchien), receives a phone call from her mother Hannah (Mia Katigbak) telling her that her grandmother Leah has just died. This precipitates an argument that leads to the couple's breakup. The play does not make a convincing case for why Grandma's death and the breakup are related.

From then on, the play is all about train rides. Ben takes the train to get away. Ruth takes the train to follow him. After a brief encounter between mother and daughter during which Hannah reveals that she has left Ruth's father, Hannah takes the train to get away from Ruth.

On the train Ben meets a young thief named Sammy (Raphael Aranas), who is traveling by himself (to get away from his mother). Later on Ruth also meets Sammy while he is trying to relieve her of her wallet. Ben and Hannah have their own encounter, although neither one is aware of who the other really is. Ben certainly seems to get along a lot better with Hannah than he did with her daughter, despite their major difference in age.

While Ruth, Sammy, Ben and Hannah are having their adventures on the train, Hartman's play takes several detours back to Russia where Leah (Kristine Haruna Lee), the family matriarch, and her little nephew Joseph (Aranas) are trying to escape to America — the primal train ride. Eventually, all the characters meet as past and present resolve into a better future.

With its impressionistic blending of fantasy and reality, and its conflation of timelines, Leah's Train would be a difficult undertaking for any company. NAATCO and the play's director, Jean Randich, certainly deserve credit for assuming such a challenge. But in this case one suspects they've bitten off a bit more than they can chew.

The actors never seem to really connect with the material, either emotionally or ethnically. Whether the result of poor writing or poor acting, many of the characters seem unnecessary. Sammy's role in the play is unclear. Is he an American version of Leah's nephew, Joseph? What is Ben's function? Why does he have the same name as Leah's lost brother? He neither changes nor precipitates change. Was he the only means the playwright could think of to get Ruth on a train?

It's hard to believe most of the actors care about what's happening. And it's almost impossible to think of them as Jewish. Only Lee gives a truly moving performance as the vagabond Leah searching for a safe haven.

NAATCO's goal of interpreting characters from a multitude of cultures is laudatory, but one wonders how this will actually work out. Does NAATCO intend on playing black characters, Hispanic characters, native American characters? One can hardly imagine a NAATCO version of August Wilson's Fences or Gershwin's Porgy and Bess.

Oddly enough, NAATCO can produce a play like Leah's Train precisely because Jews in America are for the most part no longer considered an ethnic minority. . .or for that matter , ethnic at all. How much difference is there really between Asian-Americans playing the American Jews in Leah's Train and Asian-Americans playing the Irish-Americans in O'Neill's A Long A Day's Journey into Night, or the white, Anglo Saxon American's in Our Town?

The desire to celebrate the richness of American culture is a fine ideal. But it doesn't always make for good theater.

Leah's Train
By Karen Hartman
Directed by John Randich
Cast: Kristine Haruna Lee (Leah), Jennifer Ikeda (Ruth), Louis Ozawa Changchien (Ben, Soldier), Raphael Aranas (Sammy, Joseph), Mia Katigbak (Hannah)
Set Design: Katheryn Monthel
Costume Design: Alixandra Gage
Sound Design: Robert Murphy
Lighting Design: Stephen Petrilli
Running Time: 90 minutes, no intermission
National Asian American Theatre Company (NAATCO)TBG Theatre 312 West 36th Street 212-868-4444
From 2/06/09; opening 2/10/09; closing 2/28/09
Monday to-Saturdays at 7:00pm and Saturdays at 3pm. Tickets are $15 during previews, $20 thereafter
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons, Feb. 7, 2009
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