Even if you’ve never read Paula Hawkins’s best-selling book The Girl on the Train or seen the 2016 movie adaptation starring Emily Blunt, you already vaguely know what the story is about: a girl on a train. Except in the stage version of this thriller currently making its regional premiere at Lyric Arts in Anoka, you never actually see said girl riding the train. She tells us she rides the train, a plot point that’s central to the mystery presented here, and we see projections of a blurred train rushing by, but the audience never witnesses her in a seat staring out the window.
Why is such an obvious scene left out of this play? The Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Carousel only features a carousel in the first scene of the show, but they had to include it because it’s essential to ground the entire story that follows (and, well, it’s the name of the piece). Yet in The Girl on the Train, it seems the writers would rather tell the audience that the girl rides the train and spies on people in their backyards instead of showing us on the stage. And that’s just the beginning of this adaptation’s problems.
Taking the wildly popular story The Girl on the Train and staging it in a theater probably felt like a no-brainer. The thriller — which follows Rachel Watson (played here by Laura Baker), an alcoholic whose life has been falling apart ever since her husband divorced her, remarried, and had a child (something Rachel was never able to do) — uses an ingenious device to tease out the mystery of a third woman who has disappeared. Rachel has been spying on this woman from the train, and thinks she saw a clue as to what happened, but her memory is foggy and fractured due to the heavy drinking (and perhaps other issues). An unreliable narrator meets a murder mystery? The options available to a theatermaker seem endless.
Unfortunately, when this stage version premiered in 2018 in Yorkshire and then played London’s West End in 2019, the reviews were dismal. It seemed the playwrights Rachel Wagstaff and Duncan Abel weren’t able to do justice to Hawkins’s original story. Since it was a critical flop, you’d be justified in wondering why Lyric Arts decided to stage this at all.
For one, there’s the name recognition of the original property. Then there’s the fact that murder mysteries seem to be having a moment in the culture (Knives Out, The White Lotus, The Mousetrap heading to Broadway for the first time ever). But more importantly, it seems that Lyric Arts felt they could improve upon the stagings that had been done before.
Director Anna J. Crace has brought a new multimedia vision to this production, which has been carried out with the help of lighting and projection designer Jim Eischen, scenic designer Chad van Kekerix, sound designer Emily Ludewig, and videographer Ian Pirner, among others. The stage is dominated by screens, a large one across the back and others hung askew around the set. They become transparent when they need to be (like when the show opens with Rachel in her apartment, jolting out of bed behind one screen), and also act as conduits for memories of the missing woman, Megan Hipwell (played by Ninchai Nok-Chiclana exclusively in video projections on the screens).
Conceptually, this new staging makes complete sense. By displaying video of Megan onto these screens, instead of putting her there in-person amongst the rest of the characters, Crace smartly plays with the central idea of memory. Not just the memory of Rachel, but of Megan’s husband Scott (Jack Bonko) and psychiatrist Dr. Kamal Abdic (Austin Moores), who both converse with projections of Megan in scenes where the audience understands that they’re recounting moments from the past. Are we seeing the real Megan? Or are these memories colored by the people recounting them?
We understand quickly that everyone in this story is a suspect, and that extends to Rachel’s ex Tom Watson (Jonathan Feld), his new wife Anna (Grace Hillmyer), and even the official investigating the case, D.I. Gaskill (Doc Woods), who may be hiding something himself.
In practice, however, the truly impressive stage wizardry Lyric Arts has concocted isn’t able to fix the inherent flaws of this play. At one point in the proceedings, Rachel compares her flawed memory to a puzzle you buy at a yard sale that has pieces missing — and that’s what this adaptation feels like. The saving grace in live theater, even in a show that’s lacking on the page, is always the on-stage performances and connections between actors; unfortunately, one of the central actors in this play is reduced to a video projection. And there are other problems specific to this production, including the fact that it’s set in London, England, and features many hallmarks of the country (the phrase “some drink” is uttered multiple times, a chip shop is cited) but everyone is speaking with American accents, not British ones, and details like that jerk the audience out of the story.
My hat is off to Baker, who is onstage for almost the entire show inhabiting a character who constantly lies while barely holding onto reality. It’s a part with endless pitfalls, and she’s able to navigate the rest of the cast through the murk to a dramatic conclusion. The entire production team must also be commended for obviously bringing a wealth of ideas to this new staging and following through on them. It’s just too bad they didn’t have better bones to begin with.
The Girl on the Train
420 E Main Street
Anoka, MN 55303
Playing through February 5, 2023
Buy tickets here
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