When I last spoke to the director Tyne Rafaeli, this past summer, she was involved with Brian Watkins’ Epiphany for LCT’s Mitzi E. Newhouse space. This time, she was in the midst of rehearsals for Keith Bunin’s The Coast Starlight, which has just begun previews in the same theater. Watkins’ play took place in an East Coast rural setting, Bunin’s on an Amtrak train – the Coast Starlight route – between Los Angeles and Seattle. Are the works connected?

“Well firstly, they are both incredibly funny and moving, and have a rare balance between the light and dark” Rafaeli told me “But on a deeper level, we’re living in such an intensely atomized world. The potent cocktail between the pandemic and its after-effects, and unbridled technological growth, has left us in an epidemic of loneliness and distrust.  Both plays explore our perennial need for intimacy, and the transformative power of leaning across the aisle and connecting with each other.”

With The Coast Starlight, the lean across the aisle is both metaphorical and literal: six passengers engage in mostly imagined encounters while on Amtrak. How does a director stage a long train journey? “Movement is vital,” Rafaeli said. “The train journey that our characters take is 36 hours, and our play is 95 minutes long, so the production plays with time and space in a way that can only happen in the theatre. Our characters traverse an enormous distance together. Also, The Coast Starlight travels across some of the most spectacular landscapes in the country with such a rich and storied mythology, it was important that the production embodies the awe and mystery of that experience. As the relationships change and intensify so does the space, and we ultimately transcend the reality of the train car altogether.”

How has Rafaeli’s staging changed from 2019, when she did the play at La Jolla Playhouse, to today? “In California, the theatre was a large proscenium, so we played with a more epic scale, which was great in its own way. What’s special about the deep thrust of the Mitzi is the intimacy: we modified the design to celebrate that closeness and put everyone in the same room while still able to lift into the epic.”

Rafaeli said that other changes are less theatrical than contextual. “The main character in the play is in the American military. In 2019 when we did the play at La Jolla, the war in Afghanistan was still raging. Today, we’ve gone through a complicated and dramatic withdrawal from Afghanistan, and now there is a war raging in the Ukraine. Being a news junkie, it feels to me as if the reality of warfare and its consequences are more vivid to us now than 3 years ago. Afghanistan was America’s longest war, and it had tragically receded from the news cycle long before the withdrawal occurred.”

I mentioned to Rafaeli how rarely these days we see the military in American plays or movies. “That’s true, and I think Keith offers us an important and nuanced look about what it means to serve your country in 21st-century America. Both politically and personally.” The complexities of class in the country also arises in the play, “Keith reminds us how the economic conditions of people’s lives propel them to join the military. And how the promise of that life, and the reality, don’t always align.”

When I spoke with Bunin for this blog a few weeks ago, he mentioned the importance to him of the work of John Guare and Lanford Wilson. Rafaeli mentioned another American playwright: Thornton Wilder. “When I read Keith’s play, I immediately thought of Our Town and Pullman Car Hiawatha. Working on Wilder as a younger director was formative for me. I think that Keith’s play is in dialogue with him. Not just in terms of form – the interplay between past, present, and future – but in terms of what it is saying about how we could live together.”

How so? “Both Our Town and The Coast Starlight tell a story through the intense specificity of normal human lives, while also expanding to a metaphysical plane that holds our whole lives.” She added: “It’s in dialogue with Emily’s question in Our Town” - “do any human beings ever realize life as they live it?” In The Coast Starlight everybody gets on the train at a crossroads in their lives. We discover how connecting with each other, and being brave enough to actually look up from our phones and listen, can help us see our own lives in profoundly different ways.”

Brendan Lemon is a freelance journalist in New York.