Produced by Haven Theatre
Playing at Theater Wit, Chicago
The Hard Work of Choosing to Maintain a Friendship
In older dramas, young lovers had to overcome obstacles created by their parents and circumstance to earn their happily ever after. In Arlene Hutton’s 1998 Last Train to Nibroc, they have to overcome themselves. This play, now being presented by Haven Theatre, was the first of a trilogy that Hutton wrote through 2006, but anyone who seeks to know more about the other two parts risks learning too much about plot developments in this one. The pleasure of watching Nibroc, a two-person show that takes place over several years, is how the relationship between its protagonists twists and strains due to their youthful uncertainty, isolated upbringing, and tumult elsewhere in their lives.
The first scene takes place on a train on the very particular date of December 28, 1940. May (Amanda Drinkall) is reading in a window seat, when she is approached by a soldier, Raleigh (Mike Tepeli). He recognizes her book, and is excited to talk to her about it, thinking he’s found a fellow bookworm. This train, he informs her, is carrying the bodies of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Nathanael West, and he takes that as a good omen regarding his own plans to become a writer. She’s not nearly as optimistic or in as good a mood as he is, but is willing to play along. It soon emerges that May isn’t as cultured or open-minded either, but Raleigh decides not to hold that against her too much when he learns that they are from neighboring small towns in Kentucky. She is returning home from her first trip away, in fact. Her purpose had been to visit her boyfriend at an army base in Los Angeles, but she was deeply disappointed by what she found he’d become. Her dream is to be a missionary, and he’s not suitable.
Raleigh pokes fun at her over that, but is unprepared when she picks apart his plan to move to Brooklyn and become a writer. His experience at the base was disappointing, too: he’s just been discharged for being medically unfit for duty. Eventually, though, his sense of humor wins her over enough that she agrees to accompany him to the titular Nibroc festival, back in Kentucky. Their train ride ends pleasantly, but this is only the first of three scenes. By the time we rejoin them a year and a half later, their relationship has soured, to the extent that it exists at all.
Drinkall and Tepeli, who appeared previously in Strawdog Theatre’s Great Expectations, work very well together.
Though their characters are opposites in many ways, the actors pay careful attention to each other, and every line of dialogue is an elaborate give-and-take. May is willfully ignorant and badly misinformed, but is capable of cleverness and has an earnest sense of morals that could plausibly appeal to Raleigh. He’s a dreamer and a romantic who’s upset to have missed out on fighting in the impending war, and deep down, very lonely. May catches him at a moment when he’s missing a goal in life. Though these are flawed characters, Drinkall and Tepeli embody their vulnerabilities and desires so completely, it’s hard not to sympathize with them.
Credit is also due to director Jason Gerace for finding ways to establish how the flow of time effects these characters through how they pace their dialogue, draw close, and then away. Joanna Iwanicka contributes a clever scenic design, which is the norm for her, consisting of large weighted flats, which Drinkall and Tepeli manipulate themselves during scene changes. Kathy Logelin’s dialect coaching sounds good to my ears; the characters are clearly from somewhere small and disconnected, and their drawn-out twang lends a lot of color to everything they say. Last Train to Nibroc isn’t a play that’s packed with action, and it’s possible that these characters would have had fulfilling lives without each other. But, that they choose to try connecting with each other, when they could walk away, produces an interesting flavor of drama. Happiness is a choice, as the saying goes, as is love, according to the religious subculture to which they belong. Watching them commit to that choice makes for an engaging evening.
Reviewed August 1, 2015
This show has been Jeff recommended.
For more information, see Last Train to Nibroc’s page on Theatre in Chicago.
Playing at Theater Wit, 1229 W Belmont Ave, Chicago. Tickets are $28 with discounts for students, seniors, and industry; to order, call 773-975-8150. Shows are Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8:00 pm, and Sundays at 3:00 pm through September 6. Running time is ninety minutes with no intermission.