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Last Train to Nibroc
By Elyse Sommer
The twangy sound of fiddle music sets the tone for this Kentucky flavored romance unfolding during the first three years of World War II. May (Alexandra Geis) is a self-admitted goody two shoes schoolteacher with a "never no mind" certainty about right and wrong and a leaning towards becoming a missionary. Raleigh (Benim Foster) is a young soldier recently given a medical discharge from the service (epilepsy -- which in those days was much misunderstood and mistreated).
The young couple meets on a California to New York bound train. She'll be getting off at Chicago to switch to a train that will take her back to Corbin, Kentucky. This switching point of the trip will also mark the first step from casual acquaintanceship to something more lasting. You see, while he too is a Kentuckian ( in fact, his home is close enough to Corbin for him to visit the annual Nibroc Festival) Raleigh's dream of going to New York to become a writer is bolstered by the fact that the train is carrying the bodies of two famous writers -- F. Scott Fitzgerald and Nathaniel West.
I won't be giving away any surprises when I tell you that a relationship does develop, though for all the hokey B-movie 40's aura, this is not a romance with a syrup smooth happily ever after ending. May and Raleigh may both be from small towns in Kentucky but there are differences obvious from their first conversation. She is reading Magnificent Obsession by Lloyd C. Douglas, a Lutheran clergyman whose religious uplift novels were best sellers during this period, his mention of F. Scott Fitzgerald or Nathaniel West draw a blank with her. Two years pass before Raleigh brings May a copy of Douglas' latest best seller, The Robe, along with news about his own literary endeavors. Those two years have brought major personal traumas along with the larger changes wrought by the war.
The play has a single item of scenery, a two-seater bench. As this changes from railroad car seat to a park bench in the woods of Corbin and finally to a chintz covered sofa on May's front porch, these two young people reveal themselves fully. Raleigh is the more open-minded, sensitive and adventurous half of the pair: He contemplates going to New York because "you can always go home" while she declares that "people who go away from home change -- then they're not from home any more." When she expresses her insecurity and distress over the beau who proved himself less than she thought during her California visit, Raleigh boosts her confidence by telling her how brave she was to go there to see him. When first faced with his sharecropping family and his bout of epilepsy, her "missionary" fervor is somewhat shaken. But both May's and Raleigh's innocence and decency prevails and proves contagiously moving and funny. The blows fate deals them make you root for that happy ending, as readers rooted for the characters in the kind of Norman Rockwell illustrated Saturday Evening Post stories Raleigh has begun to write.
Michael Montel's simple staging keeps the focus where it belongs, on the two characters at its center. As that simple bench gets a new look from scene to scene, so costume designer Shelley Norton has given Mae and Raleigh three period perfect outfits (though sticklers might note that Raleigh's air force shoulder patch in the first act is a little ahead of its time). Like many plays evolving from a shorter format into a full-length play, this version seems at times to be stretched beyond its limits and would be well served by some judicious tightning throughout.
Last Train to Nibroc is the sort of show dear to the heart of producers with an eye for the bottom line -- a smart, endearing script to appeal to a broad audience that's inexpensive to put on and keep running. Ms. Geis and Mr. Foster who have been with this play through its development process are terrific. Neither one is particularly well known so if the current production shows that it has legs on Theater Row, it could easily do well in other parts of the globe with this or another pair of talented young actors. What's more, it's not limited to conventional venues either; for example, it would make a perfect special event at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge to which thousands flock to relive more innocent lives such as those portrayed in this play -- and in the story Garfield sold to the magazine that made Rockwell famous.