Last Train to Nibroc by Arlene Hutton. Staged by the Chester Theater Company, Chester, MA, through July 25.
I drove back to Chester Theater Company(CTC) last night expecting another engrossing evening and got it. I love making the trip to the village (pop. 1000) and the makeshift theater in its small Town Hall with its inexpensive but ingenious and effective sets, costumes, and light and sound design. I’m always interested in the work selected by Artistic Director Byam Stevens, who makes plain his commitment to a writer’s theater.
“There are companies that celebrate the magic of the actor’s craft,” he writes, “that propound the primacy of the director, that espouse particular artistic or ethnic identities. These are all fine things . . . But if there has been a craft that has left its imprint on my seasons here, it is the craft of the writer . . . deep insight into the human condition, rich characterizations, first rate dialogue, and a deep and abiding faith in the essential poetry of common people.”
Words to warm any writer’s heart.
I had never heard of Last Train to Nibroc or playwright Arlene Hutton, author of more than a dozen plays and self-described “daughter of hillbillies,” whose work draws on her Appalachian family background. In fact, Last Train To Nibroc received a 2000 NY Drama League nomination for Best Play and more than 50 regional productions. CTC is producing it this summer as part of a trilogy as well as a marathon.
All performances are followed by a Talkback, which in the CTC’s case means the director gets to talk as much or even more than the audience. Given the subject, we preceded it with a visit to Chester’s Railway Station, a place staffed by railway buffs and local historians who seem to know everything there is to know about railroads in the U.S.
But, back to the play. Set in the early 1940s, Last Train to Nibroc is a romance between May, a young woman planning on becoming a missionary and Raleigh, a young man planning to become a writer. Relaxed and lanky, Raleigh takes the empty seat beside May on an eastbound train from California bearing the coffins of Nathaniel West and F. Scott Fitzgerald. He has been discharged from the Air Force for medical reasons; she has gone to California to visit her fiance and is returning home to Kentucky disappointed. In a first scene that sparkles with humor and charm, the two get acquainted, sparring in the tradition of the finest plays and movies of the 1940s.
The stop-and-start relationship that evolves over the next two scenes (separated by two brief pauses in which a soundtrack of contemporary radio broadcasts and music of the time sustains the historic mood) is both engaging on its own terms and evocative of theater history. I thought of characters from plays as different as Major Barbara and Same Time Next Year, to name just two. The characters are fun to watch, their relational misunderstandings both familiar and specific to their time and place.
As I’ve come to expect at CTC, the actors are very good, as is the direction. Joel Ripka makes a convincing and sympathetic suitor and Allison McLemore a tart and intelligent May. But thinking about the director’s credo, I found some of Hutton’s dialogue (or perhaps it was his direction of her “poetry of common people”) a tad labored. Our culture has made “the Journey” into a cliche. Heavy declamatory emphasis on images such as “The tree” or “The train” undermines their metaphoric power. We get it.
With that small caveat, I’m recommending that you go to Chester very soon.
Helen Epstein is the author of the biography Joe Papp and a profile of art historian Meyer Schapiro available on Kindle/Amazon.