by Jeannie Marlin Woods
What is theater but gathering together in a dark room to share stories – stories that remind us what it means to be human? LAST TRAIN TO NIBROC, now playing at the Ghent Playhouse, is a resilient work that premiered in New York 23 years ago. “Resilient” because it is the simple story of a young woman and young man who meet on a train in 1940. As crafted by the deft hand of playwright Arlene Hutton, NIBROC is a subtle love story with humor and compassion.
Hutton’s play was inspired by the romance of her parents and also by a fun fact – that two writers, Nathaniel West and F. Scott Fitzgerald, died the same week and their coffins were possibly on the same train heading back east for their funerals. The playwright introduces us to Raleigh, a young man who after being rejected for military service due to a medical condition, takes that information as a sign that he should not return home to work on his family farm, but should use his free travel pass to go to New York and fulfill his dream of becoming a writer. As in life, his plans get derailed when he meets May. She is a prim and proper young lady who is returning home from a trip to California to see her soldier boyfriend – evidently expecting a marriage proposal before he ships out to the war. But things have not gone as she planned.
Hutton reveals the backstory and the personalities of this young couple in quick and delightful dialogue. May is defensive and condescending and on her way to armoring herself against the shocks and disappointments of life. Her dream is to marry a preacher and be a missionary, although she has little knowledge of the reality of that choice. Raleigh is all dreams – seeing himself as a writer, although he has yet to publish.
The play unfolds in three scenes. The relationship begins on the train and picks up 18 months later when they meet again at the local community fair, the NIBROC Festival in Corbin, Kentucky, in the area where both characters grew up. Nibroc is Corbin spelled backwards and not the “heathen” event that May thought it was. We learned Raleigh’s plans have not materialized and neither have May’s, although she is dating an itinerant preacher. Raleigh’s life has been stymied by his epilepsy – meaning you cannot go into the service or work at a factory job and is consigned to work on his dad’s tenant farm.
The final scene is on the front porch of MAY’s house a year later. The division between the character seems insurmountable, but step-by-step they work through their issues, culminating in a most humorous and charming resolution.
Sky Vogel has directed this two-hander and his avowed affection for the play is evident throughout. He has augmented the minimal setting (it can be played with a single bench for all the locations) but in a very simple way. A small cyclorama and silhouetted images (a railroad track, a large old tree, a bit of a porch) provide context and color without distracting from the story we so long to hear. The artful lighting by Allen Phelps, the nicely appointed period costumes by Joanne Maurer, and the original music by Catherine Shane-Lydon serve the play well. The staging is effective although more could have been made of the action at the end of the second scene when Raleigh has an epileptic seizure. That moment would have heightened the stakes for the final scene.
NIBROC features two adept actors. Elisheva Novella, who has graced the Ghent stage before, turns in a fine performance as May. She excels in playing the prudish, religious and naïve personality of May—as Raleigh describes her, she is “prickly.” She also finds the humor in the third scene as she comes to grip with the depth of her affection for Raleigh through his teasing and probing. One wishes she might have found more nuance and variety in the transition from the walled-off feelings that May exhibits at the outset and person that we see once Raleigh has broken through her emotional barriers.
Clayton Rardon is a newcomer in the area and he brings a boyish charm and genuineness to the role pf Raleigh. Like Novella, he handles the rapid-fire dialogue with aplomb and seems very comfortable in his character. He doesn’t miss the moments, using silence or a glance or facial expression to reveal to us the pain he is enduring as he tries to find his place in the world and his way into May’s heart.
LAST TRAIN TO NIBROC is a special play that appeals on so many levels. It has been rightfully described as storytelling at its best. Without the flash and glitter of a big theatre extravaganza, it is a capsule in time, where we remember those simple moments that steer us in unknown directions and change our lives. That sweet purity is a joy to experience and we hope the Ghent Playhouse production will draw a large audience to share this NIBROC.
LAST TRAIN TO NIBROC
Author Arlene Hutton
Director: Sky Vogel
Cast: Elisheva Novella (May) and Clayton Rardon (Raleigh)
Lighting design Allen Phelps
Costume design Joanne Maurer
Original music Catherine Shane-Lydon
LAST TRAIN TO NIBROC runs May 20 through June 5, 2022. Evening performances May 20-21 and June 3-4 at 7:30 p.m. Matinee performances May 22 and June 5 at 2:00 p.m. For tickets call. Masks and Covid vaccination are required.
Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission at the 6 Town Hall Place, Ghent, NY 12075
Closing June 5 Website: GhentPlayhouse.org