Monday, August 8, 2016

Red Door: "Last Train to Nibroc"

Arguably one of its most polished productions, Arlene Hutton's charming Last Train to Nibroc is ending its all too short run at the Red Door Theatre in Union Springs.

With a cast of two excellent actors, the simplest of set designs (a series of benches that suggest the play's three locations), an evocative musical and sound underscoring, and sensitive direction by Fiona Macleod, Last Train to Nibroc is one part of a trilogy exploring the relationship between May [Eve Harmon] and Raleigh [Joseph Crawford] -- this one recounting their first chance meeting on a cross-country train and its aftermath against a backdrop of World War II and its impact on the lives of ordinary Americans at home.

May, an aspiring missionary, is on her way home to Corbin, KY after breaking up with her fiance in Los Angeles. She is reading Magnificent Obsession by Lloyd C. Douglas, a book with significant Christian themes. Raleigh, a soldier honorably discharged after being diagnosed with epilepsy, is an aspiring writer on his way to New York to fulfill his dreams, though filled with self-doubt and guilt for "deserting" his fellow soldiers. When Raleigh takes the only seat available next to her, he tells her that the bodies of two recently deceased writers he admires [F. Scott Fitzgerald and Nathaniel West -- of rather different leanings than Douglas], are traveling in the baggage car on their train. Quick to judge others on perceived moral lapses, May is uncomfortable with Raleigh's progressive ideas.

Two unlikely souls, one might think, but as their conversations gradually reveal a lot more than the biographical details of their lives [he is also a Kentuckian who lives in a nearby town to hers], each one's defenses drop and the awkward beginning peels away layers of beliefs, doubts, and fears that most people can identify with, creating an intimacy between them and with the audience.

In their three meetings over a three-year period, we witness the growing comfort that May and Raleigh experience. In performance, Ms. Harmon and Mr. Crawford, guided by Ms. Macleod's assured direction, depict May's and Raleigh's journey, demonstrate confidence, show subtle and natural vocal shifts and inflections, deliver well-crafted overlapping dialogue, exhibit physical comfort and varied pacing without sentimentalizing a simple boy-meets-girl scenario. They simply let the audience into their lives.

It helps that Ms. Hutton's script doesn't pander to eccentric Southern stereotypes, but shows two real characters as they discover the joys, frustrations, humor, and compromise of being in love with the right person.

Two quibbles with an otherwise flawless production: 1) having an intermission in a tightly crafted 90-minute play breaks the audience's connection with the characters whose lives they have invested in, and 2) though there are a few times in the play when May and Raleigh almost kiss, at the end it doesn't happen and though they anticipate a kiss at the end, the audience justifiably feels cheated.

Ms. Harmon and Mr. Crawford have played these characters in See Rock City at the Red Door; if they choose to produce the third in the trilogy -- Gulf View Drive -- it would be a feather in their cap to get these two fine actors to reprise the roles once again.