Tickets to ride: Anne Letscher and Eric Gilde in Last Train to Nibroc at Ithaca’s Kitchen Theatre Company.
Well, the first glance is wrong. We’re seeing Last Train to Nibroc at Ithaca’s Kitchen Theatre Company, where one can more often expect to see the works of Harold Pinter, Dario Fo or Eugene Ionesco. A fall production was Bob Clyman’s Secret Order, about the backstabbing politics of cancer research.
So the meeting on the train is anything but cute, as the young people are accompanied by the corpses (in another car) of two recently deceased writers, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Nathanael West. We may have the makings of a romance and enough witty lines to start a comedy, but what Hutton gives us instead is a detailed character study of two people whom lesser playwrights would find to be white bread. May and Raleigh, whom Hutton tells us are based on her parents, are full of surprises and engaging but not what you’d call ingratiating. They never call out to us to love them.
When a man and a woman talk, we can be sure more is going on than what is heard in the dialogue, even when romantic pursuit is not on the agenda. It is Raleigh who tells us that Fitzgerald and West, whom he calls “great writers,” are on board. With their authentic Kentucky accents (sustained throughout), May thinks she hears “writer” pronounced as “rider.” Her penchant for mistaking one word for another persists and is key to the climactic scene in the last act.
Fitzgerald’s reputation was at low ebb then, and May does not think much of him. West, author of The Day of the Locust and Miss Lonelyhearts, was not yet known, and May dismisses him from just the sound of the titles, judgments that make her appear superficial and priggish. She reads instead the novels of Lloyd C. Douglas, such as the soggy melodrama Magnificent Obsession, respectable then but selling three copies for a quarter at garage sales today.
As they continue, we learn than she hails from Corbin in the southeastern portion of Kentucky, and he has lived in the nearby town of Woodbine. Although slow to admit it, he allows that he knew her and her family before he left the area, but she does not recall ever having heard of him before. Part of her disdain for titles like Miss Lonelyhearts is that she thinks of herself as religious. He feels being a Baptist is in itself enough, and he has no need to keep being reborn at every worship service. She says she would like to become a missionary, even if it means living in a hut, which he cites as a sign of her bravery. But he has his sights set on going to New York City.
None of this is ever mundane, regardless of how commonplace it may sound. In part that’s because we sense rising tension about values, status, goals and authority. More importantly, Last Train to Nibroc is both a test for actors and a feast for those who can deliver. Not for nothing it was a hit at the 1999 Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
Artistic director Rachel Lampert auditioned more than 200 applicants before choosing the two young professionals who appear, both with extensive New York and national credits. Playwright Hutton takes a long time to give us important information, such as why Raleigh was dismissed from service, but Letscher and Gilde’s body language and mobile facial expressions tell us what we need to know before we get there. And they also get the maximum humor out of sometimes testy language. Letscher gets a huge laugh from her riposte to Raleigh’s joshing: “You can tease a dog, but you don’t like its bark.”
The “Nibroc” of the title is the name of an annual festival in Corbin that most of the locals swarm to. May wrinkles her nose at the very suggestion of it, thinking it may be named for a pagan god. It is actually the reverse spelling of the name of her hometown. Then there’s all that gambling, and drinking and dancing—even though Corbin is in a dry county. But Raleigh can respond that celebration should be embraced rather than feared.
While Last Train to Nibroc is hardly a mystery story, Hutton has a Christie-like quality for withholding information whose later revelation alters what we think about what’s happening before us. May’s seeming pettiness can be turned into strengths, and Raleigh’s drives reveal his needfulness even when he achieves success. These are really full characters, more likely to be found in a Russian novel than a stage entertainment.
Arlene Hutton is hardly a household name, but Last Train to Nibroc has sustained 200 productions since it first appeared 10 years ago, and is now the first third of a Kentucky family trilogy. Leaving aside that it is a producer’s dream—the same seats serve as the railway car, a park bench and a front porch—Last Train brims with the kind of intense emotion only live theater can deliver. Anne Letscher and Eric Gilde are so skilled at wringing every ounce of nuance from the text that you know you couldn’t bear this show with a second-rate cast, and it would die as a television show or movie.
Kitchen Theatre’s production boasts a moody original score, with harmonica, banjo, fiddle and guitar, composed by Robert Dietz, which is well served by Lesley Greene’s sound design. Lisa Boquist’s costumes bring the 1940s alive while augmenting the character’s changing relationships. In all Last Train to Nibroc is a deeply satisfying show that other companies may wish to heed.
This production runs through Dec. 6. See Times Table for information.