Funny how the smallest plays can sometimes ask the biggest questions. Take Last Train to Nibroc, Arlene Hutton’s charming 1999 drama, which is currently playing at the Rubicon Theatre. It’s 90 minutes long. There are only two characters, played by two actors. The scenery is minimal, at least in this production.
But by the end, you realize that, in its low-key, elliptical way, it has been posing fundamental questions about human nature. What constitutes genuine courage? How do we reconcile the two incompatible pulls we all feel — to embrace the familiarity of home and to explore and discover the world for ourselves? Is the key to love finding the right mate, or acknowledging your true self?
Those are among the themes hiding just under the surface of this unpretentiously poetic tale, which is brought to lovely life by director Katharine Farmer. Its setting is the home front during World War II. The first of its three scenes takes place on a train heading east from Los Angeles.
May (Lily Nicksay) is reading a novel and trying to forget about the unpleasant time she just spent with her boyfriend, who (like nearly every other young male of the period) has enlisted in the service. “He’s different,” she complains to Raleigh (Erik Odom), the young man in the uniform who sits down beside her and insists on chatting.
As it turns out, Raleigh knew the young man slightly; both were in the same training unit, until Raleigh was discharged for medical conditions (he suffers from epilepsy). May and Raleigh clearly have a mutual attraction, and when he discovers they hail from the same region of rural Kentucky, he throws away his plans to move to New York and become a writer and opts to return home.
But all is hardly bliss: The second scene jumps ahead more than a year, to a period when the couple is estranged. In a testy conversation, things are said that puncture each of their personas. As Hutton subtly lays out their story, though, these painful wounds are necessary steps toward a deep, honest relationship.
There’s amazingly little sentimentality here — just two people grappling with feelings they barely understand. Odom and Nicksay do so with a touching naturalism. There’s nothing showy about either of their performances, but under Farmer’s sure hand, there’s a reassuring rhythm to their interactions that suggests they’re more in tune with one another than they realize.
Nicksay beautifully embodies both her character’s religion-based repression and the internal tension it creates. Odom is a charmer, but he’s also quietly chilling as his jealous side emerges. One quibble: Their accents seem a bit thick and a little generic (although I’ll concede it’s possible they reflect what rural Kentuckians actually sounded like in the 1940s).
Mike Billings’s design is rather odd, and I’m not sure that’s by design. The visual cues suggested to me that the first scene took place on a railway station platform rather than inside the train; and I have no clue as to why the seat/bench the actors sit on needed to be switched out for a similar seat/bench between each of the scenes. Marcy Froehlich’s costumes, on the other hand, are attractive and period-perfect.
Last Train to Nibroc is reminiscent of the work of Horton Foote, who similarly took the lives of ordinary Southerners and gave them mythic resonance. As with Foote’s great Trip to Bountiful, Hutton combines gentle humor with tough-edged truths to create a memorable journey.
Last Train to Nibroc continues through May 10 at Rubicon Theatre (1006 E. Main St., Ventura). For tickets and more information, call 667-2900 or see rubicontheatre.org.