Romance on the Rails

The year is 1940. A young couple meets on a train traveling east from California. That is, the man sits down next to the clearly reluctant woman, talks to her, jiggles his leg, eats noisily. He tells her he'd intended to be a pilot but has been discharged from the military because he suffers from "the fits" -- epilepsy. Now he's off to New York to be a writer. He's discovered that the corpses of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Nathanael West are traveling on the train with them, in the baggage compartment, and this delights him. It's an odd combination when you think about it: the chronicler of the lives of the rich and patrician jouncing along beside the creator of Miss Lonelyhearts.

The young woman is prim and prickly. She has been to missionary school, and she intends to be a missionary, but she's shocked when the man informs her that this would mean a life of deprivation. The two find out that they come from adjoining small Kentucky towns, but they disagree on almost everything. More than once, the woman raises her book to her face or the man stands up to try to find another seat, but some thread of interest keeps them talking.

The play's second scene takes place a year later. The relationship has gone sour. She's a schoolteacher now, and she's been seeing another man, a preacher. They talk. He seems to have given up on his writing career, and she keeps correcting his grammar. We see that she's become more small-minded and judgmental than ever. In their final encounter, two years later, he's about to leave town. As the dialogue progresses, however, it becomes clear that she's changed in some significant ways. Where her missionary ambitions were ignorant and half-formed and her Christianity narrowly moralistic, she is now ready to give up her life to meet the needs of another human being.

Last Train to Nibroc is a sweet, slight romance. The script manages to evade cliche, but it is problematic in parts. If Raleigh is a genuine writer -- and we're led to believe he is -- why does May need to correct his grammar? Or is this just playwright Arlene Hutton's way of telling us he's given up hope of a writing career? We believe May's naiveté about a missionary career -- she is, after all, very young -- but the confusion that provides the play's climax strains credulity. This is one of those plots where you know two people are attracted to each other, and many of the disagreements and impediments between them seem contrived. At times, you wish they'd just get on with it and kiss.

Fortunately, both Brett Aune as Raleigh and Jessica Austgen as May turn in strong performances. He's naturalistic and sympathetic; she's a little more stagy in spots, but also -- with her precise posture, expressive face and auburn curls -- clear-edged and very vivid. As a result, our interest in their situation rarely flags.

Luanne Nune de Char's direction is nuanced, clean and tight, and Patricia A. Whitelock's period costumes are both appealing and authentic. The set, by Rick Barbour, is elegantly minimal, always consisting of a flat postcard backdrop and two seats. A few other furnishings appear as the drama progresses. Last Train provides a pleasant evening of theater that's several steps up from staying home and watching Friends. Still, it would be nice to see all this talent and ingenuity put to the service of a more incisive script.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman