Nilo Cruz’s “Night Train to Bolina” suffers from the kind of take-home flaws that land many a new play on the shelf after premiere: It loses focus in the second half, then stalls out with a pallid final note. Local reviews for this Magic bow have been predictably wan. Yet there’s more than enough poignant simplicity and insight here to warrant other stagings — given some rewrites, natch.
The 34-year-old playwright left his native Cuba for Florida at age 9. While not autobiographical, “Night Train” clearly draws on notions of childhood alienation, as well as Latin magical-realism currents. The setting is a nameless Latin American country where guerrillas battle soldiers who “put people in bags of rice and thrown them in a pit.” Caught in the crossfire are rural peasants, who face drought-caused starvation as well.
When adults live under impossible conditions, they often vent their frustration on those with fewest defenses: children. Mateo is terrified of his mother, who “beats everybody”– even an elderly grandma. Clara is also afraid. Her marginally more prosperous family (i.e., they have bread) no longer beats her, but demands long prayer periods as atonement for such “crimes” as sneaking out precious rubbing alcohol to clean Mateo’s wounds.
Baffled by their perceived “badness,” the pair decide they’ll run away to the city — mythic Bolina, where lost kites are said to harbor. Director Mary Coleman realizes this flight with poetical sweetness, as the duo traverse Jeff Rowlings’ striking, steeply raked set design, walking on chairs used as stilts, a huge full moon projected behind them.
The kids land at a church orphanage where well-meaning authority figures Sister Nora and Dr. Martin misread the pair’s fierce, loyal affection as something sexual, isolating them in separate dormitories.
Several sharp scenes involve these characters, as well as Clara’s assigned bed mate, Talita. But Cruz soon unwisely departs from his hitherto effective realism in favor of a contrived telepathic link between protagonists. Their resulting “triumphant” reunion hits a final chord that’s pure anticlimax. Before that drift, however, “Night Train” is often very touching. The dialogue credibly conveys a child’s mind-set without fuss or sentimentality. Some scenes nail emotions so innocent, vulnerable and familiar that their effect is heartbreaking.
Leads Sean San Jose Blackman and Greta Sanchez Ramirez (both in their mid-20 s) add much to the impact via unaffected, exquisitely sensitive turns. Decent support players and polished tech elements (especially J.A. Deane’s sound design) also enhance Coleman’s thoughtful production. While needing further work , “Night Train to Bolina” certainly hits a less schematic, more elementally moving note than many recent stage contributions to our reigning child-abuse obsessions.