Scene: The city and the forest, once a single village, have been divided by a railroad that cuts through the land.
Scene: The two halves are now two municipalities. No trade flows between them. Families, then friends, lose touch. The city moves to protect itself with high walls.
Scene: All the trees are dying, one by one. The walls have severed their roots.
So unfolds The Dream Train, the latest project from Imaginary Theater Company (ITC) during its summer session. Written and directed by ITC Founder Starry Krueger, the play runs Friday through Sunday at Lyric Hall in Westville. After opening there last weekend, it also held a performance at the New Haven Free Public Library on Thursday afternoon.
The Dream Train is, at first glance, disarmingly simple. As we learn in a series of flashbacks and flash-forwards, Dawn (Ariana Valdez) and Ezra (Tim Smith) are close friends. They play for hours together in their thickly wooded village, baking apple pies and sketching out blueprints for treehouses. That changes one Independence Day when the mayor — who just happens to be Ezra’s father — announces that a railroad is going in, splitting the village into two as construction picks up.
Fast forward: The two have stopped speaking to each other, shuttled to city (Ezra) and forest (Dawn) as the railroad creates political, social and logistical cleavages across the land. They grow into their parents’ roles. Ezra becomes the mayor of the city, and Dawn that of the forest. Feeling in need of protection, Ezra pledges to build high walls around the city.
Walls that will kill the forest’s trees, and isolate her people. Walls that will break up friends and families (but they’re doing it to create jobs!). As conditions grow dire, only Ezra and Dawn’s young daughters may be able to stop time—and in this case, isolationist industry—in its tracks. There’s just one problem. They’ve never met, and they’ probably never will, because the city and the forest don’t meet.
Unless, of course, they just dream their friendship into existence one night, as they do.
When they get on the dream train, so do we, guided through past and present by a chorus of woodland spirits. The simplicity is disarming—part Christmas Carol, part cautionary tale about isolationism, pervasive doubt and xenophobia. As daughters Scout (Aija Covington) and Honor (Ziani Boone) time travel, the story of the town’s railroad becomes one about I-91, cutting through the city during urban renewal. It becomes one about the allocation of municipal resources to the neighborhoods that need them most. About learning that good fences—or in this case, good walls—don’t really make good neighbors, but conversation might.
For Krueger, 29, it’s based directly on experience. A preschool teacher at Alphabet Academy in Hamden, she started spending students’ naptime thinking about the dreams they shared with her previous classes, from British Columbia to Montana to Amistad Academy Elementary School. The geographic, often socioeconomic divisions that existed were no match for the fantasies of dreamland, she said Thursday. So she began to commit the idea to writing.
“I wanted to create theater that had both whimsical elements and things that happened in real life,” she said. “It was important to write plays where children were the heroes”
Dream Train does just that, bringing forest magic, folky, homespun vocals and an otherwise straight-talking script to life with young actors. With a crown of ivy and flowers in her hair, Elizabeth Grayson leads the chorus through a wild, dream-soaked night, pulling out light choreography as her young spirits (Tracine Allen and Duha Yeroz) guide Scout and Honor through a muddy past and present.
As Scout and Honor, Aija and Ziani are a particularly dynamic duo. They are immediately distrustful of each other, and the slow process by which they warm to each other happens almost entirely in movements, with a few spare words thrown in. Even as the two sit back-to-back dreaming in complete silence, a certain thread runs from them to the audience, pulsing with a need to connect.
Some of the young actors got that too.
“I really liked the play because of the singing and the flowers,” said Duha. “Sometimes it is painful for people to talk about the past, or to tell their kids.”
“They’re still figuring out the problem,” she added.
Dream Train runs Friday, July 21 through Sunday, July 23, at Lyric Hall in Westville. Tickets are $10 for children and $15 for adults.