The occurrence of nonoccurrences, once upon “The Coast Starlight”

For me, summer has always been synonymous with vacation and travel. Not this year. As I remind myself to stick to CDC’s issued summer travel guidelines recommending the public to hold off any non-essential travel, I’ve instead jumped on “The Coast Starlight.”

“The Coast Starlight,” a play by Keith Bunin, centers around six strangers on a long distance train route that travels from Los Angeles to Seattle. Each of the characters is dealing with a crisis. While these strangers have very little interactions in real life, they were able to talk, argue, advise, and even fall in love through Bunin’s imagination.

TJ, a Navy medic, imagines himself telling Jane why he is on the train. / Image Credit: La Jolla Playhouse

Fun fact, Bunin’s inspiration for the play is based on his own experience riding the Coast Starlight north and south. The Amtrak operated passenger train, en route daily between Los Angeles and Seattle, has operated continuously since 1971. The total travel time is 35 hours.

On the Road

Have you ever, while traveling (on a train, a plane, or a bus), wondered about the people around you and the stories behind their travels? Have you ever caught yourself spinning stories about a fellow traveler? Well, writer Keith Bunin did.

The Coast Starlight runs en route daily between Los Angeles and Seattle. It passes through Santa Barbara, the San Francisco Bay Area, Sacramento and Portland.

“When we travel, the other passengers appear to us as figures in a landscape. But on a long trip, they become alive in our imaginations,” Bunin explains.

In the play, these speculations are turned into conversations that bring imagined encounters into the realm of reality. Except that these exchanges, for the most part, are fictional interactions.

The journey begins

The story starts with TJ (Nate Mann), a young Navy combat medic, and Jane (Camila Canó-Flaviá), an animator in her 20s, boarding the train in Los Angeles. TJ, who uses a false identity to buy the train ticket, is deciding if he should run away from another deployment to Afghanistan; Jane is going to see her possibly soon-to-be-ex boyfriend in Seattle. The two characters feel an instant attraction to each other and would have liked to have struck up a conversation… But, they didn’t.

But, if they did talk

They might learn from each other. They might discover that they make a great couple.

That goes for the other characters. As each new addition boards the train, the conversations grow and multiply in variations to include their stories.

Noah (Rhys Coiro) gets on at the San Luis Obispo stop. The ex-military makes a living tending bars, doing odd jobs, and housesitting a boat. He is traveling to Oregon to visit his sick mother. He doesn’t have much to look forward to in life, and he doesn’t know if he should return home for good to take care of his mother.

In Salinas, Liz (Mia Barron) boards. She rails loudly on the phone that she is leaving her partner because he told everyone in the middle of a couples seminar at Esalen (bougy alert) that he needs to sleep with other women because he can’t be satisfied by her. She doesn’t know if she should really leave him or what she should do if she does leave him.

In San Jose, Ed (Rob Yang) boards the train drunk. The cantankerous businessman and divorced dad initially picks a fight with the fellow passengers, then breaks down crying because he hates both his job and his life. He can’t quit his job because he needs the money to pay for alimony.

Anna (Stephanie Weeks) is the last to board in Oakland. She is in the Bay Area to pick up her junkie brother’s ashes. The two had fallen out of touch and Anna wonders what she will tell her partner and children, since she has never told them she has a brother.

The six lives bump up against each other on the Coast Starlight. If they had opened up to each other and shared their stories, could they have helped each other in some way? Would their lives have changed for the better? These are possibilities based on the imagined conversations.

From front to back: Anna, Liz, Jane, Ed, TJ and Noah. / Image Credit: La Jolla Playhouse

I wish

Before the train reaches Seattle, TJ and Jane exchange conversations. They realize they would have enjoyed each other’s company if they had started the conversation earlier. And who knows what 36 hours, instead of a brief few minutes, of talking might have led to.

The beautiful, moving, funny, and pensive collection of nonoccurrences is perhaps best captured by this exchange:

“I wish I’d known that about you.”

“I wish you had, too.”

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