Last Train To Nibroc – June 2008

8/10

By Arlene Hutton

Directed by Katie Henry

Venue: Orange Tree Theatre

Date: Tuesday 17th June 2008

The set was same chopped-corner platform as for De Montfort, with a bench on top, and a book sitting on that. Clothes were hanging on a peg to our left, and, as I realised later, to our far right. We sat in the middle of far right front row.

The plot is simple. A man (Raleigh) and a woman (May) meet on a train journey from California to the east coast in December 1940. They develop an unlikely relationship, which continues over the next two scenes, when they finally(!) come to terms with their love for each other. God, the frustration. There were times I wanted to bang their heads together and tell them to get on with it, but the writing was good enough to keep me watching to see what would happen.

They were an unlikely couple because of their different personalities, but these two opposites clearly attracted each other. May was an uptight, prim little madam from a small Kentucky town, with a fantasy, rather than a dream, of being a missionary. Having just spent Christmas with her (ex-)fiancé and discovering that he was no longer interested in helping her realise her fantasy life, she’s naturally feeling unsure of herself, and this combines with a natural caution of strange men to make her rather uncooperative when the young airman sits down beside her on a crowded train.

Raleigh comes across as very brash to begin with, a big lummox type who’s going to have a conversation even if she doesn’t join in. As the scene develops, though, we can start to see other aspects to each of them, and we also learn a lot about their lives. Turns out they’re both from small Kentucky towns, about twenty miles from each other, one of them being Corbin. In fact, Raleigh’s uncle has a farm just opposite her family’s place, so they practically know each other already. He’s been invalided out of the army/air force (they do things differently in the States) as he started to get fits, later confirmed as epilepsy. He’s a bit down about that, but when he found out from the porter on the train that the coffins of two great writers, F Scott Fitzgerald and Nathanial West, were on the train, he’s inspired to go all the way to New York to become a writer himself.

Through this first scene together, he spends most of his time trying to persuade May to either go with him to New York or, if he does go back home instead, to go with him to the Nibroc festival (Corbin spelt backwards). She finally agrees, so there’s hope for her yet. The actors moved the bench around four times during this scene, so everybody got to see them from all four angles. It was nicely judged, as there were some natural pauses in the flow of the dialogue. At the end of the scene, they moved the bench again, and then used the entranceways to get changed, before heading off so they could make a proper entrance for scene two.

This second scene is a couple of years later, from what I could tell. The war is beginning to bite, and the Nibroc festival has had to downsize accordingly. May arrives first, with a small green bag that she’s anxious to dispose of somewhere. Eventually she throws it away, but Raleigh finds it and returns it to her. There has obviously been some problem in their relationship, and several times I thought the scene was going to come to an early end. But they just can’t get each other out of their systems, and a remark or question would set them off again. It was good to see a play which didn’t give the impression of being structured to suit the audience so much as reporting what real people actually do. In that sense it was perhaps less overtly dramatic than most plays, but it kept me involved and caring about these two people.

May has been stepping out with a reverend chap, who’s off to be a missionary (he actually ends up enlisting as an army chaplain), but she’s worried about the amount of money he’s been taking from the church collection. The bag she was so worried about held that night’s takings, which she was presumably going to return to the church, believing that God would provide for the minister. Given her attitude, it’s a blessing she doesn’t go with him. For both of their sakes.

Her judgemental attitude knows no bounds. Raleigh is concerned to find out why she didn’t come to have a meal with his folks, after he’d been for dinner with her family. She tries to avoid the subject, but eventually we find out that it’s because his father had Jake leg, a condition that weakened the joints and caused the sufferer to limp or shuffle, and was caused by drinking adulterated alcohol. Many people, usually the poor, did this during prohibition and the distinctive limp became a social stigma, especially to someone like May.

Meanwhile, Raleigh’s time has been spent far from New York, although he did make it to Detroit in search of work. His epilepsy kept getting in the way though, as he’s susceptible to bright flickering lights, so he’s ended up back on the farm helping his folks. There’s a very moving speech towards the end of this scene where he expresses his feelings about the illness for the first time, explaining how ashamed he’s felt about everything – not being able to fight, not being able to work, letting his parents down, etc. I was nearly in tears, and it obviously affected May as well. However, he then has an actual epileptic fit (very accurately done apparently), and May dashes off to get help while he twitches on the stage. It was a powerful moment.

The final scene has them watching a huge blaze at a lumberyard from the safety of her folks’ back yard (it was an actual event in Corbin). Raleigh has come over for dinner again, so things are obviously better between them, and they each have something to tell the other. Raleigh’s news is that he’s going to New York after all, to fulfil his dream of being an author. He’s already sold some stories, including the one about how May’s younger brother hid himself away in the back of Raleigh’s pickup when he and May were out for a drive, and then ended up being car sick. He’s also got a job with a New York paper. Her announcement takes longer to fully come out.

He’s not long been out of hospital after his epileptic fit. They’d mistakenly put him in a hospital for crazy people, and she wrote to him every week, though she didn’t visit him. She’s surprised to find his skin is fine, and mentions this several times. Finally she explains that she’s been reading up on his condition, and basically offers to take care of him. The only thing is, she misheard him when he named the illness, and she thinks he’s got leprosy! After a good laugh at her misunderstanding (we all joined in), Raleigh focuses back on what’s important to him – that she was willing to spend her life taking care of someone with an incurable disease. He pins her down (not easy – she could give an eel lessons in being slippery) to admitting that they would actually have to live together so she could take care of him, and well, after that it’s not surprising that the marriage question pops up. Despite a final little wriggle, she agrees, and I was so happy for them.

There’s more to this play than this simple storyline suggests, and it was a real heartwarmer. The performances were excellent, as were the accents, and for something written fairly recently it had a great period feel to it. Although it’s set during WWII, the war is part of the background to these two people’s story, not a big issue that the play is attempting to deal with, and for me that’s fine. Lots of people just had to get on with their lives through the war years, and they weren’t constantly locked in philosophical debate about the ‘issues’, so it’s nice to see a play that reflects that for once, as well as being a gentle and detailed observation of human relationships and their quirks. A good choice by this young director, and very good casting.

The post-show discussion was missing Sam Walters for once, but the director and full cast were available. There was much praise for the performances and the play, with points like the accuracy of the epileptic fit and real life events such as the lumberyard fire coming up. Apparently the author had paid a visit during rehearsals, and been totally happy with the choice of actors. We did seem to get sidetracked into a debate about the likelihood of these two characters getting together, but I think it was perfectly reasonable. He wasn’t the sort of man who wanted a drippy wife who would agree with everything he said, and given the sort of life he was planning, it made sense that he would naturally want someone down to earth, and who would keep his feet on the ground, which she would certainly do. She may not have been much of a cook, but growing up on a farm she understood hard work, and by the third scene she’d been made principal of a local high school, so she’s smart too. And underneath her prim manner there’s both a kind heart and a feisty nature, both of which attract him.

For her, I think the attraction is that he doesn’t fall for her dreams, which are usually pretty unrealistic. He’s also not put off by her pickiness, at least not completely, and he opens her up to new ideas, which is challenging and a bit scary, but ultimately exciting. They’re likely to have a prickly but happy relationship, though they’re the sort of couple that will make a lot of people wonder what they see in each other.

There was also some comment about feminism and May’s choice to ‘sacrifice’ her life for Raleigh at the end. Personally, I think that’s rubbish. Given the circumstances of the play, it’s much more likely that May will go to New York with him eventually and get a job there to help support him, so for those to whom only having a career can possibly be fulfilling for a woman, that’s fine then. (Minor rant coming here.) Actually, I find the whole feminism thing utterly distorted now, as it only seems to want women to be ersatz men, rather than allowing women to choose whatever type of life suits them best, and according us the same rights as men. There’s an implied judgement that all ‘feminine’ activities are inferior, which actually encourages the macho culture we’re lumbered with at the moment, provides men with the conditions to thrive competitively, and undermines the very equality the feminists have set out to achieve. Ggrrhh. (Rant over.)

Well, now that that’s out of my system, I can conclude that this was another very successful production, and we’re looking forward to the Vaclav Havel season later this year, as well as the new air conditioning.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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