The Nibroc Trilogy
nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
April 5, 2007
78th Street Theatre Lab's current production of The Nibroc Trilogy by Arlene Hutton is an impressive undertaking: three plays, performed in rotating repertory, covering nearly 15 years in the life of a Southern family. The individual plays of the trilogy—Last Train to Nibroc, See Rock City, and Gulf View Drive—are each accomplished in their own right. Seen together, they form an undeniably moving portrait of a changing America in mid-century.
The protagonists are Raleigh and May, who first meet on an eastbound train in December 1940 in Last Train to Nibroc. They are from neighboring small towns in Kentucky, but that's where the similarities end. He's a G.I. on medical discharge who dreams of being a writer; she's a prim and proper missionary-in-training. He is gentle and friendly, while she is terse and honest to a fault, sometimes to the point of seeming judgmental (one of the play's funniest lines sums her up perfectly: "I'm not mean—I'm religious!"). Their courtship spans a bumpy two-and-a-half years that includes a term in the state hospital (for him), a romance with a nomadic preacher (for her), and a host of ideological differences before they eventually and inevitably come together.
See Rock City starts in June 1944, right after Raleigh and May's honeymoon, and finds the couple adjusting to the challenges of married life. He is piecing together an almost part-time living as a writer, while May brings home the bacon as a school principal. They're living with her mother, the genial Mrs. Gill. But, Raleigh's manhood take a blow from the constant criticisms of his mother, the sour Mrs. Brummett, and a steady stream of rejection letters from New York publishers—not to mention taunts of cowardice from his own neighbors (he can't fight in the war—he's epileptic). Before long, Raleigh's marriage is under newlywed siege from all these opposing forces.
Gulf View Drive resumes Raleigh and May's story in 1953. This time we find them in a new cinder block house on Florida's Gulf coast. Raleigh is now making a lucrative living as a writer, and May is still working in the schools. Mrs. Gill has joined them down south, and the three of them have an idyllic life by the water. But, their paradise is upset by the arrival of Mrs. Brummett and Raleigh's sister, Treva. The family patriarch has just died and their farm has been lost, so the Brummett women move in with Raleigh, and tensions run high immediately: Mrs. Brummett is still as narrow-minded and judgmental as ever, and Treva is a layabout who watches TV all day. With motherhood on May's mind, and the lure of New York still tugging at Raleigh, change may be in the air.
These are compassionate, intimate plays that evoke the small triumphs, defeats, and epiphanies found in Horton Foote's work. Hutton has nothing but gentle affection for her characters, despite their foibles, and that shines through in The Nibroc Trilogy. The way Mrs. Brummett unthinkingly digs at her son ("Raleigh's never gonna amount to nothin'") is shot through with as much feeling and investment as Mrs. Gill recalling the family dog ("Jimbo") following her to church every Sunday: moments like these, and countless others, comprise the backbone of The Nibroc Trilogy. They are little, quiet moments that add up to a larger, greater whole.
The three plays are textbook examples of character driving the story, instead of vice versa. Hence, they lean towards character study, but still provide a strong plot. Last Train to Nibroc is a good introduction to the Nibroc universe (the title refers to the name of Raleigh's hometown, Corbin, spelled backwards), with See Rock City providing a bridge between parts one and three. The entire company hit their stride with Gulf View Drive, where the thematic seeds planted in the first two parts—i.e., the eternal struggle between Raleigh's easygoing nature and May's take-charge feistiness—sprout into a rich conclusion.
Eric Nightengale directs the trilogy with grace and care. He guides these plays with an invisible hand that gives the actors maximum flexibility, and keeps the audience focused on the characters. So fluid is the work done here by Nightengale that one may be forgiven for thinking that maybe the actors just directed themselves, which is also a testament to Nibroc's talented cast. Polly Adams is sweet and nurturing as Mrs. Gill, while Ruth Nightengale gets a lot of comedic (and not-so-comedic) mileage out of Mrs. Brummett's poker-faced reprimands. Christina Denzinger nails Treva's listless indecision perfectly. The heart of The Nibroc Trilogy, though, lies with Alexandra Geis and Greg Steinbruner's nuanced performances as May and Raleigh, respectively. Theirs is an onstage rapport that truly captures the details of marriage: the affection and exasperation, the support and the disappointment, and the hard, hard work. Geis and Steinbruner are the real deal.
The Nibroc Trilogy lovingly shows not only the progression and growth of its characters, but of its author as well. Take a bow, Ms. Hutton, for giving theatergoers this rewarding opportunity.