See Rock City by Arlene Hutton. The second play in the Nibroc Trilogy. Directed by Jay Stratton. Staged by the Chester Theater Company, Chester, MA, through August 8.
Arlene Hutton’s absorbing Nibroc Trilogy, produced by the Chester Theater Company (CTC), is now in its second phase with See Rock City. Although the three plays are each meant to stand alone, CTC is producing them all this summer and on the final two Saturdays of the season (August 14 and 21) will present the complete cycle in one day.
If Last Train to Nibroc, a romantic two-hander of a young soldier and a young schoolteacher who begin a romance on a train, sometimes evoked Scenes from a Marriage, See Rock City is in the tradition of American family drama with two mothers-in-law onstage and a brother, a sister, and a father hovering in the wings.
The play takes places on the one-set porch of the Gill home as, far away on the beaches of Normandy, American forces are about to launch their invasion of France. The war front and the home front are juxtaposed as music and radio broadcasts of the time are heard in the background and a merry Raleigh Brummett and May Gill return from their honeymoon.
Like enthusiasts of television series, we’re happy to see this pair of oddly-matched but sympathetic lovers again. After several weeks of playing May Gill and Raleigh Brummett, Allison McLemore and Joel Ripka have settled fully into their roles of high-strung schoolteacher and laid-back aspiring writer. Both actors bring their quirky, strong-willed characters to stirring life. Their chemistry is palpable, and we believe their love can withstand the marital trials ahead. They are joined by the equally persuasive Carole Monferdini as the saintly Mrs. Gill and Susanne Marley as “Mean as a snake” Mrs. Brummett.
Inter-generational family dynamics and class and religious divisions in small town society now enrich and contextualize the struggles of the young couple. As more and more boys from Kentucky, including May’s brother, are drafted to fight in the Second World War, local opinion begins to impinge on their lives. May is promoted to principal of her school and becomes the breadwinner of the family, supporting her husband, father, and mother. Raleigh, who receives a stream of rejection letters from magazine editors after an initial flush of success with his first short stories, is relegated to the role of lay-about.
Although he initially volunteered for the military, he was discharged because of epilepsy. Mrs. Brummett, an uneducated woman who still believes that her son’s fits are a personality issue, laments that mothers of soldiers who have died spit at her in town. She’s ashamed of a son who is home in wartime, doesn’t support his wife, and lives in her family’s home. The saintly Mrs. Gill, on the other hand, defends her son-in-law and worries about her own son Charlie who’s in the military. Although the time frame is mid-twentieth century, the characters are timeless.
The design team is the same for all three plays of the trilogy and set, costume, lighting, and sound work seamlessly together. I found the use of news dispatches from New York and Paris particularly effective, as well as the evocative lyrics of the pop music of the time.
This is the story of how the Second World War played out in the backwater regions of the American home front as well as the story of a marriage. We are fully with Arlene Hutton’s people as “the lights go on again all over the world” and look forward to finding out how she will conclude her impressive trilogy.
Helen Epstein is the author of the biography Joe Papp and a profile of art historian Meyer Schapiro available on Kindle/Amazon.