A young couple’s struggles to live the American dream during WWII and its aftermath don’t quite stretch to fit the ambitious format of “The Nibroc Trilogy.” But that doesn’t diminish scribe Arlene Hutton’s Southern storytelling skills in these three regional plays or take away from Eric Nightengale’s well-tempered production for the 78th Street Theater Lab. Plays will appeal to auds hungering for “event theater” that eschews flashy effects, demanding instead a long-term commitment to deserving characters caught up in trying circumstances.
The trilogy opens in 1940, more than a year before Pearl Harbor. In that crucible moment, it is still possible to glimpse the innocent face of a nation that still sleeps at home and lives in peace — and that is the face that Hutton captures so lovingly here.
But it wasn’t just the war that changed the American way of life — it was also the revolution in mass transportation, modern modes of communication and the transition from an agrarian to a manufacturing economy. Hutton bravely tries to work every facet into her bittersweet love story about a girl named May (Alexandra Geis) and a boy named Raleigh (Greg Steinbruner).
When they meet in “Last Train to Nibroc,” May is headed back home to eastern Kentucky after a disastrous reunion with her soldier-boy fiance in San Francisco. Raleigh, who just received a medical discharge from the military, comes from the same small town but is continuing on to New York to try his fortune as a writer.
With her tight lips and stiff spine attesting to her rectitude as a born-again Christian, May declares her intentions to marry a like-minded gentleman and become a missionary abroad. But it’s obvious from her feisty character (and Geis’ sparkplug perf) that May is a plucky gal who could do anything she sets her mind to. And while gentle Raleigh seems more the type to settle down on the family farm (an impression confirmed by Steinbruner’s genial interpretation of this smiling boy), he is devoted to writing and to modern writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Nathanael West — whose bodies happen to be on the train.
“This is my chance, my time,” he tells May, and although the scope of his dreams unsettles May, she eventually finds the courage to open her clenched-fist of a mind.
That is as deep as their characters go in the first play, and while it’s enough to make us care for them, it isn’t enough to sustain them through the narrative languor of their three-year courtship.
“See Rock City” shifts to the front porch of a Kentucky bungalow and introduces three new characters: May’s warm-hearted mother (a lovely, supple perf by Polly Adams), Raleigh’s hidebound mother (played by Ruth Nightengale as rigidly as she is drawn), and the war.Eric Nightengale executes his most ingenious helming in this sequence, keeping May and Raleigh — now married — and their mothers hopping on and off their porch perches in multiple scenes that deftly convey the frictions in the marriage and the pressures that are contributing to them.
The central plot point established here is that women like May (who advances from competent schoolteacher to work-driven high school principal) thrive during wartime, while men like the epileptic Raleigh are unable to use their skills in a war-obsessed society. May goes from feisty to prickly, and Raleigh, whose cornpone country stories no longer sell to the big magazines, feels himself diminished as a breadwinner and a man.
It isn’t until “Gulf View Drive,” set on the gulf coast of Florida a decade later, that Raleigh recovers his career and his sense of purpose, as the successful author of boys’ adventure books and the proud owner of a nice house and a brand new boat. But by this time, a whole new set of social problems confront the couple. Poor Raleigh can’t even find a place to write in a household that expands to include both widowed mothers and his sister Treva, the lazy and lackadaisical mother of a large brood — but charming as hell in Christina Denzinger’s fine-tuned perf.
Hutton hustles to get in as many social revolutions as she can in this postwar era — from McCarthyism to the first stirrings of the Civil Rights movement — and this last play tends to sag from the weight of its responsibilities. But the spine of the central relationship holds it up, as May and Raleigh make one more domestic adjustment so that they — and by extension, the entire unruly family of man — can survive.
Given the trilogy’s 10-year history in development and on the regional circuit, Hutton no doubt feels that her scribbling days are done. And indeed, she has done a remarkable job of compressing almost 15 years of American history into her love story. But there is still room for improvement in her characters, who are not entirely consistent or believable, as they’re too often called upon to change their minds and their moods and arbitrarily modify their behavior in order to service the plot.
Nonetheless, the 78th Street Theater Lab design team earns kudos for encasing these sweet plays in a time capsule that protects the characters’ casual references to vintage commercial brands and vanished social rituals from drawing easy laughs for their quaintness. (It’s OK to hoot, though, at the clever use of period pop songs and TV shows to comment on cultural tastes.)
Coiffed in hairstyles and wigs (by Bobby H. Grayson) that age and date them with appropriate subtlety, thesps look right comfortable in the crisp plaid shirts and much-washed cotton housedresses unearthed by costumer Shelley Norton. And while he strikes out with an uninspired version of the scratchy upholstered seats in old passenger trains, Bradford Olson produces affectionate renderings of those big back porches where house-bound American families used to live out their lives.