Review: ‘Gulf View Drive’ at Washington Stage Guild

Wood Van Meter and Lexi Langs in ‘Gulf View Drive.’ Photo by Washington Stage Guild.

Gulf View Drive is the third and final play in Arlene Hutton’s highly-acclaimed Nibroc Trilogy, which opened this week to waves of laughter and applause at the Washington Stage Guild in downtown DC.

Even if you missed the earlier plays, you will nevertheless find much to enjoy in this saga of romantic love struggling to survive in mid-century America. (Click here to read DCMTA’s reviews of Last Train to Nibroc and See Rock City.)

Like its predecessors, Gulf View Drive continues the story of Raleigh and May Brummett, the couple who met on a train heading home to the hills of Kentucky in 1940, just before the US entered World War II.

Now it is 1953. Raleigh and May are no longer newlyweds. They’ve turned their backs on the backward hills and have bought a house on the Gulf coast in Florida. The house – bought with cash – is a symbol of their newfound success. Raleigh is a writer who has suddenly found both a publisher and an audience. In fact, he’s under contract for a 12-book series, with a new manuscript due every three months.

May, after years of substitute teaching, is now working full-time at a good local high school, imparting the wonders of Shakespeare to the all-white senior class. After 13 years, they are thinking about starting a family. But before they can do anything about it, their respective families move in with them and quickly upend their lives.

There are two mothers-in-law who rule the roost and fight about how to cook chicken, and Raleigh’s sister, Treva, who has abandoned her husband and children along with any thought of getting a job. Treva’s main occupation consists of lolling on the couch, trying to annoy her brother. She also watches a lot of daytime television.

All these stay-at-home relatives take up a lot of space. Soon there is no room for Raleigh to write. Instead of the clickety-clack of a typewriter, we hear nothing but the static of bickering women and the chatter of commercials. It’s a highly engaging setup for the fireworks that are about to abound, and Gulf View Drive offers a good healthy dose of the latter.

The play benefits from having an excellent cast – four of the five actors are playing the same roles they had in the previous plays – plus an accomplished director; a trio of terrific set, sound, and lighting designers; and a beautifully wrought play.

The two romantic leads – Wood Van Meter as Raleigh Brummett and Lexi Langs as May – share easy chemistry as they flirt and fight their way through the demands that threaten to split them apart.

Laura Giannarelli is once again Raleigh’s mother – a battle-ax incarnate whose every word is a complaint – and Lynn Steinmetz is May’s. The two are excellent foils for each other, partly because they represent stark opposites.

Lynn Steinmetz, Lexi Langs, Wood Van Meter, and Laura Giannarelli in ‘Gulf View Drive.’ Photo by Washington Stage Guild.

For example, Raleigh’s mother is a fire and brimstone Baptist. Back in Kentucky, she drove a tractor on the family’s sharecropping farm. May’s mother, like the young people, prefers a nondenominational church – the sort that has sunrise services on the beach – and plays golf.

Chelsea Mayo, as Treva, is the only newcomer to the trilogy. She delivers a star turn as the hillbilly sister acting out an episode of ‘Queen for a Day’ in which a disabled housewife competes to win a washing machine and a dryer.

Since this is the 1950s, racial and gender issues loom in the background, casting long shadows on the action.

Arlene Hutton, the playwright, displays an extraordinary skill at interweaving the sweet and the stark so that a play that seems almost sentimental at the outset turns into something entirely different and surprising.

Directing the action and pacing the surprises is Bill Largess. Along with Giannarelli and Steinmetz, Largess is a founding member of the Washington Stage Guild, as well as its principal dramaturg and a veteran actor.

Carl Gudenius and Jingwei Dai have created a typical beach-front set. All the action – stretching from November to May – takes place on the screened-in back porch of a cinder-block house just a block from the Gulf.

Frank DiSalvo’s sound design fills the air with music and commercials of the 1950s. They are wonderfully redolent of a time when daytime television ruled the air and when every house required a homemaker to see that dinner was on the table. The lighting, created by Designer Marianne Meadows, serves to separate sunsets and seasons, evoking the fantasy of a “gulf view” lurking just behind the titular drive.

Gulf View Drive was initially produced on the west coast, at the Rubicon Theater, where it received the Los Angeles Ovation Award in 2018.

Running time: Two hours and 20 minutes, including one intermission.

Gulf View Drive plays through February 17, 2019, at the Washington Stage Guild, performing at the Undercroft Theatre of Mount Vernon United Methodist Church – 900 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (240) 582-0050, or purchase them online.

A “pay-what-you-can” staged reading of See Rock City – the second play in the trilogy – will be held on January 30, 2019, at 7 p.m. For details, call the box office.