Reviewed by David Spencer
In 1999, a short play called Last Train to Nibroc debuted at the 78th Street Theatre Lab, detailing the sweet 1940 meeting between a prematurely decommissioned soldier (cause: epilepsy) and a "good" God-fearing girl on a train passing through Chicago—who happen to be from the same Kentucky county. The meeting leads to a rocky friendship that is really a courtship that dare not speak its name, and inevitably to a proposal of marriage. The play's gentle humanism garnered such a universally affectionate response that the production transferred to Theatre Row. Even there it was so well-liked that people's impression was that it ran longer than its 33 performances. From experience, I can tell you: that's how cult favorites are born: the "afterimage" keeps performing far beyond the initial engagement.
In 2004, playwright Arlene Hutton followed up her initial creation—also at the 78th Street Theatre Lab—with a sequel: See Rock City. In this, the two young marrieds, May and Raleigh, are living at her mother, Mrs. Gill's, house in eastern Kentucky. It's 1944 and times are hard for them: May is trying to support them both from her salary as a grade school teacher; and Raleigh, more now than just an aspiring writer, but one who has been published in several magazines, is suffering what is, to him, the humiliation of not being able to find work. There are jobs, but not that will take him on with his condition. Making matters worse, his narrow-minded mother, Mrs. Brummett, doesn't recognize his writing as work in its own right. But over the course of a year, in expected and surprising ways, happy and sad things happen that change the family dynamics.
It is now 2007, and making its debut in repertory with the first two plays—again at "the lab," where it all started—is Gulf View Drive, this one set in 1953-54 on the back porch of Raleigh and May's new cinderblock house—bought with the royalties from Raleigh's bestselling series of Young Adult novels. Rich he isn't, but he is working and thriving and his mother still doesn't get it. And there are new tensions involving the long trip to New York that made his career possible, while having left May, now an interim wartime (Korean war) grade school principal, by herself for nearly two years. Tensions compounded by the presence of his sister, who has invited herself for an extended stay away from her abusive husband back home in Kentucky.
All three plays retain the gentleness and, ultimately, the optimism of the first. And while the this modest little trifecta is billed as The Nibroc Trilogy, it's very clear that Ms. Hutton is nowhere near done with the Gill/Brummett family, for her third play promises a continuation in what is clearly meant to be a cycle of plays that will eventually (one has to assume) culminate in a more-or-less contemporary chapter.
Eric Nightengale has directed all three plays (his first crack at Last Train, his second at See Rock) seamlessly and unobtrusively. And the cast is likewise easy to take (meant in the best sense, for in an up-close-personal family saga in a small theatre—think 50 seats—you need players who can make you feel like welcome, visiting neighbors). Greg Steinbruner assays Raleigh with deceptive simplicity that camouflages how well nuanced the performance truly is. Polly Adams as Mrs. Gill is the tolerant mother/-in-law you'd recruit for grandmother-to-be, if you could. And if Ruth Nightengale is clearly way too young to really be that intolerant old biddy she plays, there is such intensity and uncompromising conviction in the way she inhabits the role that the audience becomes complicit with her in creating the illusion, not merely suspending disbelief, but wanting to with enthusiasm, and even a degree of empathy. Christina Denziger, as Raleigh's sister, likewise manages a sympathetic balance between opportunist and damsel in distress. And as May, Alexandra Geis may be one of the season's important revelations. Like the two Lauras, Dern and Linney—and let's add Glenn Close and Meryl Streep to the list, while we're at it—she's a light blonde with a dark intelligence and an unforgettable face, its features seeming closer-together-than-usual around a slightly-larger-than-proportionate nose; yet therein is the singularity of her beauty and the portal to her richly layered expressiveness. Yet she never violates the spirit of, nor pulls focus from, the sense of generous ensemble. If there's a stage actress of the new generation worthy of being a "discovery," it is she.
I can't tell you the trilogy is a must-see as compelling as its young possible star...it's too low key, too modest, to create the searing energy or even the background buzz that a "must see" event would require. But it's just different enough, just fresh enough, and at off-off Broadway prices, just cheap enough to be a triptych worth taking. (It should be noted, too, the plays need not be sampled in order or in toto; each is self-sufficient.) Aside from which, the newest chapter ends in 1954. Ms. Hutton has at least another half-century to account for, and allowing for health and balance and justice in the zeitgeist, she will.
Now's a pretty good time to get in on the backstory...