If you’re of a certain age and grew up in the Midwest or South, See Rock City — the title of Arlene Hutton’s play that opens this weekend at Rubicon Theatre — evokes a distant time and place. Described on its website as the “rock garden to end all rock gardens,” Rock City is a once-famous tourist destination just outside Chattanooga, Tennessee.
If you traveled at all in the American South during its heyday — the 1930s-1960s — you were fully aware of its existence, thanks to an innovative marketing campaign. Barns on major roads from Michigan to Texas featured the words “See Rock City” in gigantic letters, piquing the curiosity of Florida-bound motorists.
Thus the title conjures up an element of nostalgia but, unless you get misty-eyed about rocks, without the sentimentality that usually accompanies that emotion. As it turns out, this perfectly reflects Hutton’s writing, which provides a clear-eyed picture of a world in transition and two flawed people who attempt to navigate it together.
“There’s so much dark, edgy theater, and I’m the first person to go see it,” said the New York City–based playwright, whose family roots are in eastern Kentucky. “But this is about people trying to be the best they can and be the best person they can be. I think there’s a sweetness about it that people respond to.”
They certainly do. Hutton’s Last Train to Nibroc was the Rubicon’s surprise hit of 2015, and Katharine Farmer, its young British director, won an Independent Award for her sensitive staging. Now, the 22-year-old Brit is back in town to direct the sequel, which will again feature Lily Nicksay and Erik Odom as a young couple living in rural Kentucky during the tumultuous years of World War II.
“The two characters are based on my parents,” Hutton said. “My mother (like the character of May) really wanted to be a missionary. My father’s first date with her was on a bet, and my uncle did hide in the backseat of the car. These are stories that I grew up with.”
Nibroc premiered at the New York International Fringe Festival in 1998 before moving to off Broadway. See Rock City was written and workshopped at a 2003 writer’s conference in Australia. “It was great because I couldn’t take anything for granted,” Hutton recalled. “I had to explain everything to the cast (about the milieu). They would say things like, ‘Kentucky. That’s in the desert, right?’”
Farmer — a University of Warwick graduate who has worked with Trevor Nunn in London — was similarly unfamiliar with the American South when she was named a directing-producing intern at the Rubicon. The position included a chance to direct a full production as part of the 2014-2015 season.
“I ordered something like 50 plays,” she recalled. “Nibroc was the 10th or 12th that arrived. After reading the first page, I thought, ‘This is the one.’ It was stranger-meets-stranger, but there was something bigger at play — something that made me want to get to the end. I trusted my instincts.”
After reading the glowing reviews, Hutton flew out here to catch the production and was thrilled. She considers Farmer a major talent in the making and hopes to develop a new play with her. First, though, is See Rock City, which features two new characters: Clarinda Ross and Sharon Sharth as the young couple’s respective mothers.
See Rock City opens Wednesday, January 27, and runs through Sunday, February 14, at Rubicon Theatre (1006 E. Main St., Ventura). Call (805) 667-2900 or see rubicontheatre.org.