On a train rumbling eastward from Los Angeles in 1940, a young man in uniform invites himself to sit down next to a pretty young woman absorbed in her book. As it turns out, they are both from neighboring towns in Kentucky, and each is traveling home in the wake of life-altering disappointments. So begins the Washington Stage Guild’s entrancing new production of Arlene Hutton’s Last Train to Nibroc, a sweet and intimate love story that plays out against dramatic societal changes occasioned by a global war.
Although they grew up just miles apart, Raleigh and May inhabit different worlds. He aspires to be a writer. She is drifting toward missionary work. He is a great fan of southeastern Kentucky’s decidedly secular Nibroc Festival; she prefers to spend her summertime at church-based camp meetings. F. Scott Fitzgerald (whose body, he notes, is traveling back home for burial on this very train) is his literary hero; she is mesmerized by Lloyd C. Douglas’s spiritual 1929 novel Magnificent Obsession, a copy of which she clutches to her chest each time Raleigh makes a verbal advance. Little by little, however, each of them reveals the reasons for heading homewards.
May attempts to wall herself off from another involvement but soon she surrenders to Raleigh’s quirky humor, and the rocky romance begins. We root for this pair over the three years encompassed by the play, hoping that they will ultimately triumph over the physical and psychological barriers they continue to construct.
Under Bill Largess’ sensitive direction, Hutton’s clever, charming dialogue is brought to life brilliantly by Wood Van Meter as Raleigh and Lexi Langs as May. They thrust and parry throughout the play, each challenging the other to look inwards and live up to their self-stated ideals.
Van Meter adroitly uses his lanky frame to project a poignant mix of bravado, restlessness, passion, and shame. We watch Langs grow her character from the sanctimonious and naïve young woman we meet on the train into a maturing adult whose growing self-assuredness enables her to transcend the narrowness of her upbringing. Her misunderstanding of Raleigh’s illness, however pathetic, gives us a breathtaking look into her loving soul.
Deft and creative teamwork among those responsible for the production’s design is critical to framing Last Train to Nibroc within the devastating years of 1940-43. Again, Washington Stage Guild has come up with a ringing success. Jingwei Dai’s spare and handsome set meets the play’s twin objectives of creating a simple and affecting tale within a society wracked by change. Three scenes are played out on three successive benches. Video screens to either side place us first on a passenger rail car, and then highlight news of the day, from Pearl Harbor to Rommel’s defeat in the North African desert.
Superb lighting by Marianne Meadows ushers us from one year to the next, and Sigrid Jóhannesdóttir’s costumes successfully project the characters’ changes over time. Frank DiSalvo’s sound design, from faint train whistles and the crickets that dominate rural nights, to the iconic Glenn Miller big band tunes, transports us easily back to 1940s.
Hutton, we learn from Bill Largess’s illuminating notes, has based her characters (but not the play’s action) on her own parents and their courtship. And although she didn’t know it when she premiered the play in 1998, it became the first of The Nibroc Trilogy, which also includes Rock City and Gulf View Drive. What a great treat it would be to follow Raleigh and May in DC productions of these subsequent plays!
Running Time: 85 minutes, with no intermission.
Last Train to Nibroc plays through February 19, 2017, at the Washington Stage Guild performing at the Undercroft Theatre of Mount Vernon United Methodist Church – 900 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (240) 582-0050, or purchase them online.