Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Rachel Watson has long been riding a London train to and from her job in the city, passing behind houses, including one she once lived in with her now ex-husband Tom. No surprise, then, that Rachel pays close attention to that particular house, noting who is on the terrace or might pass before the home's windows, be it Tom or his new wife Anna, maybe holding their baby. She also pays extra attention to a house a few doors down, where she spies a young couple who, it seems to Rachel, have a blissful life together. They are strangers to Rachel, so she names them "Jessie" and "Jason." One day she sees something quite out of the ordinary on Jessie and Jason's terrace, something that rattles her world. The next day–which is when the play begins–a detective arrives at Rachel's apartment, rousing her from a drunken stupor to question her about a missing woman, Megan Hipwell–which, it turns out, is Jessie's actual name–because Rachel was seen in the vicinity of the Hipwell home the previous night. Rachel has to ask herself what she really saw. What can she actually remember? She is at a loss to answer those questions.
I will refrain from giving away any more of the plot, for those of you who come to The Girl on the Train uninitiated. If you are one of the millions who purchased a copy of Paula Hawkins best-selling novel of the same name, published in 2015, and/or you saw the 2016 film adaption starring Emily Blunt, this storyline is familiar. I had neither read the book nor seen the movie, so I showed up knowing nothing about these people or where the plot was heading, and it certainly kept me guessing. I will only offer the information that in addition to Rachel, Tom, Anna, and Detective Inspector Gaskill, in the course of the play we meet both Megan's husband and her therapist. I can also add that, sooner or later, every one of them gives us cause to question the veracity of what they say, and the motives for what they do.
We also meet Megan, though not on stage. As she has already disappeared when the play begins, we see her only in flashbacks that are filmed and presented on multiple screens of different sizes, mounted above the playing area. Rachel's image may be projected onto just one screen, or on several with some screens bearing a specific focus–perhaps her eyes, her mouth or her hands. It is an extremely effective way to present Megan, not as an actual presence but as an image who appears differently in the memories of different characters. The fractured screens also are a visual metaphor for Rachel's fractured memories, which she describes as a "black hole in her brain," a condition that frustrates her horribly and makes her an extremely unreliable witness in the eyes of DI Gaskill.
Director Anna J. Crace hails from England, where she began her career as a director before coming to Minnesota. Her experience riding the trains–both the underground and above ground–in London may have informed her sensibilities as to what Rachel perceives on her day-in, day-out commuter trips, searching for something to give meaning to the repetitive, quickly passing landscape. In any case, Crace has her finger on The Girl on the Train's pulse, pumping its beats swiftly enough to maintain vitality, and steady enough to allow meaning to attach itself to the quickly shifting plot, while drawing together the text, performances, and design elements that all contribute to the show's excellence.
Laura Baker, as Rachel, is a relative newcomer to our stages, but I will definitely be on the lookout for her next role. She absolutely nails the character, capturing Rachel's insecurities, her deep distrust of her own perceptions, her paranoia, and her problem-drinking. We know Rachel's account is unreliable and she is as likely to be the villain as the heroine of the piece, but Baker's portrayal draws upon us to sympathize with her. Rachel is at the center of the story, so Baker's performance especially stands out, though the rest of the cast is excellent. Jonathan Feld shows Tom having his work cut out for him, calming down his ex-wife and protecting his new wife and their infant daughter from Rachel's abuses.
As Scott, husband of the missing woman, Jack Bonko reveals layer after layer of feelings as we come to understand more about the relationship between Scott and Megan. Ninchai Nok-Chiclana appears as Megan only on projected film clips, but her performance is as compelling as if she were live on stage. Doc Woods is terrific as Detective Gaskill, maintaining his equilibrium in a growing morass of suspects and motives. Grace Hillmyer convinces us as Anna, Mrs. Watson #2, who clearly wants her husband's ex to be extricated from their lives. Austin Moores ably completes the cast as therapist, Kamal Abdic, who finds himself over his head in trying to help Megan sort out her problems.
The physical production is dominated by the screens above, while scenic designer Chad Van Kekerix has effectively laid out three primary spaces which, with the addition of a piece of furniture or two, become Rachel's apartment, Scott and Megan's home, a therapy office, the police station, and Tom and Anna's home. Jim Eischen's designs for lighting and projections, aided by Emily Ludewig's terrific work as sound designer, create the effects of a train passing at frequent intervals. The train becomes a force that seems to override whatever is happening in a scene, its noise and bright glare pushing the plot onward. Ian Pirner's videography, which fractures Nok-Chiclana's performance as Megan into jagged pieces, to be splayed upon the screens, is an essential element in this production. I might add that with a fare amount of physical contact among some of the characters, intimacy director Callie Aho and fight director Aaron Preusse both make valuable contributions, bringing authenticity to those moments.
I can easily and heartily recommend The Girl in the Train if you enjoy a psychological thriller, one with bits of Rear Window and Gaslight and a lot of original twists. I suspect that if you read and liked the book or saw and liked the film, your familiarity with the story will be compensated by the excellent stagecraft and performances that make this a topflight production. In addition, my poking around reveals that several changes have been made to the plot for the stage version–nothing radical, but enough to perhaps offer a surprise here and there. The play is a dandy whodunnit, and even when one knows the answer in advance, revisiting its circuitous path, in and out of cul-de-sac wrong turns, can be a great pleasure if its well done, as this production assuredly is.
The Girl on the Train runs through February 5, 2023, at Lyric Arts Main Street Stage, 420 East Main Street, Anoka MN. Tickets from $31.00 - $39.00; seniors (60+) and students with ID: $31.00 - $37.00; Unsold seats, if any, are available as rush tickets for $20.00, starting 30 minutes before curtain time, in person only. For information and tickets call 763-422-1838 or visit lyricarts.org.
Playwrights: Rachel Wagstaff and Duncan Abel, based on the novel by Paula Hawkins and the DreamWorks film; Director: Anna J. Crace; Scenic Design: Chad Van Kekerix; Costume Design: Samantha Fromm Haddow; Lighting and Projection Design: Jim Eischen; Sound Design: Emily Ludewig; Props Design: Lee Christiansen; Videographer: Ian Pirner; Intimacy Director: Callie Aho; Fight Director: Aaron Preusse; Stage Manager: Joe Black; Assistant Stage Managers: Leah Brucker and Emily Carey.
Cast: Laura Baker (Rachel Watson), Jack Bonko (Scott Hipwell), Jonathan Field (Tom Watson), Grace Hillmyer (Anna Watson), Austin Moores (Kamal Abdic), Ninchai Nok-Chiclana (Megan Hipwell), Doc Woods (D.I Gaskill).