- KERA radio review:
- Joan Arbery’s review at Renegade Bus
- Theatre Jones review
- Dallas Examiner review
- Pegasus News review
- Lawson Taitte’s feature in The Dallas Morning News
- Expanded online review:
It’s a fact. Women attend theater more than men. Yet only two of the 10 most popular plays last year on American stages were written by women. In North Texas, Echo Theatre is dedicated to trying to correct this imbalance — the tiny company has been exclusively presenting female playwrights for more than a decade now. And earlier this year, the group hit upon one of the more popular, current ones.
The Nibroc Trilogy by playwright Arlene Hutton has been making the rounds of regional theaters: Alone, there have been more than 50 productions of the first of the three plays, The Last Train to Nibroc. The trilogy is named for a real-life music festival that’s been held in the small Kentucky town of Corbin for more than half a century. In her three plays, Hutton follows a young couple who meet on a cross-country train in 1940 – and eventually attend the festival together. By the end of the trilogy, they’ve married and have moved to Florida — where they have to face the 1950s and their in-laws.
The Nibroc Trilogy is small, modest and utterly charming. It’s very much like the homespun-but-hardheaded plays of Horton Foote. They’re like Horton Foote with laughs. True, Hutton’s work lacks the cold eye that Foote casts on his characters’ failings, but she cuts her Southern coziness and any “greatest generation” nostalgia with some intelligence and some pain.
With Echo Theatre’s Nibroc Trilogy, we have a rarity in area theater: a second chance to visit a worthy little production. When Echo presented the Nibroc Trilogy at the Bath House Cultural Center in February, the response was enthusiastic. So much so, they’re now being re-staged in Theatre 3’s basement space, Theatre Too. Consider it a return engagement.
The Last Train to Nibroc is the first play to be revived. It finds Raleigh meeting May on a crowded train leaving Los Angeles. She’s headed back home because her visit to her fiance in LA has been a disaster. As for Raleigh, World War II hasn’t even started, but it’s already over for him. He’s been discharged from the Army for medical reasons.
May is a small-town schoolteacher. She hopes to be a missionary, yet typically, she’s also suspicious of foreigners. That comic contradiction is a perfect target for Raleigh’s humor. He delights in May’s naivete, exasperating her but also flirting with her, making her laugh. In this scene, she’s insisted she’s not such an easy target. If Raleigh were a student in her school, she’d keep him in line. She’d cut a switch to punish him.
RALEIGH: “By the time you’d cut a switch, I’d be gone. Think I’m gonna sit on a milking stool in a corner waiting for you to go out and cut a switch?”
MAY: “I can run fast as you.”
RALEIGH: “What would you do when you catch up with me then? I’m too big for you to paddle. What would you do?”
MAY: “Why, I’d tell you off.”
RALEIGH: “I can mouth off as good as you.”
MAY: “I’d make you behave.”
RALEIGH: “What are you gonna do? Can’t paddle me. Can’t out-talk me. What are you gonna day, May? Take away my toys?”
Beneath Raleigh’s droll mockery, there’s a streak of sadness, a fear that life is turning against him. He wants to be a novelist, wants to escape to New York City. But his illness, the needs of his family and the attractions of May could well keep him in Kentucky, maybe even keep him from writing. As for May, she seems perennially unlucky in love.
Directed by Ellen Locy and Pam Myers-Morgan, the Echo Theatre production is blessed with a superb performance. Ian Sinclair is so easy-going and appealing as Raleigh that the actor and the smart, irrepressible good ol’ boy he’s playing seem indistinguishable. It’s one of the most comfortable yet accomplished performances I’ve seen on a local stage.
Morgan Justiss has a stiffer task because May is more or less the “straight man.” She has to be schoolmarmish yet warm enough and kind enough that Raleigh would find her attractive. The actress errs on the side of primness.
The Last Train to Nibroc recalls some of Horton Foote’s plays, but as a sweet, two-character romantic comedy, it also resembles Lanford Wilson’s Talley’s Folly, which Theatre 3 will present in November. A pair of isolated small-town Southerners meet during World War II and eventually discover that a misunderstanding has kept them apart. The play is even part of a trilogy.
But while Last Train may be headed for a similar destination, in its simplicity and sweetness, it offers a pleasant journey all its own.
[Literary-historical footnote: The cross-country train that Raleigh and May are riding is supposed to be the one that carried the bodies of F. Scott Fitzgerald and his friend and fellow writer, Nathanael West, both of whom died on the same weekend in December 1940 in Los Angeles.
In The Last Train to Nibroc, Raleigh makes much of the presence of these authors in the baggage car, which to my mind strikes a false note, historically. It’s very hard to imagine a Kentucky boy in 1940 who knew about Nathanael West. I’m not saying a small-town Southerner couldn’t know such a writer — I’m saying almost no one did. If Raleigh were a young man from Chicago, his knowledge of West would have still surprised me somewhat.
That’s because West’s dark, satiric novels like Day of the Locust and especially his European-style experiments in surrealism, like The Dream Life of Balso Snell, barely sold at all. Which is why he worked at a hotel in LA for years and then scraped by writing B movies. He was so unknown as a writer, his death was hardly noticed by the press, and it was only in the 1950s that a new anthology of his work came out and sparked interest in him.
So it’s pretty unlikely that Raleigh would not only know West’s work thoroughly in 1940 but admired him so enthusiastically as to claim he was one of the century’s great writers. Yes, it’s possible, but not entirely credible. In any event, it would make him a very unusual young writer from a tiny Kentucky town in 1940 — especially when you consider that the play seems to make no mention of any college education for him.]