by China Young
The Last Train to Nibroc, by Arlene Hutton, invites us into a story of two people, a man and a woman, who meet on a train in the middle of the US as World War II evolves. They proceed to maintain a relationship throughout the next few years, though whether the relationship is romantic or not remains unclear until the end – I won’t give it away, but I bet you can guess. It’s a story we’ve seen many times, leaving me wondering, among so many other things, why we need to see it again.
In the program Hutton, the playwright, states that the idea for the play came when she learned that the post-mortem bodies of authors Nathaniel West and F. Scott Fitzgerald traveled on the same train at the same time. She further explains that she chose to introduce her two characters, who were loosely based on her parents, on that same train, and from there she generates “a patchwork quilt of family lore and love stories I heard as a child, all stitched together to tell the fictional tale of May and Raleigh.” Layering a partly fictional love story over a slightly morbid bit of trivia from the past is a bit of a disjointed foundation and is perhaps the root reason I felt multiple layers of disconnect as I tried to absorb this production.
Susan Claassen, the Managing Artistic Director ushering Invisible Theatre into an impressive 49th year, also directs performers Samantha Cormier (May) and Damien Garcia (Raleigh) in the second show of Invisible Theatre’s 19-20 Season. All of these artists have strong portfolios, offer major contributions to the Tucson theatre community in general, and I have the utmost respect for each of them as fellow theatre artists. Unfortunately, my experience of this production does not reflect the quality of work I know these artists are capable of. I found myself constantly questioning beat shifts, character choices, staging, and a number of other elements that continue to confuse me.
Before I go into more detail on what I found disjointed, let me discuss what worked. The set design by Tom Benson was beautiful and cleverly designed, working in tandem with the strategic staging by Claassen. Each scene, all set in different times and locations, all felt very different environmentally despite them all being on the same set.
The costume designs by Maryann Trombino were great, especially for May. Women often have the better fashions in period-pieces and this was no exception. I especially appreciated how the evolution of her costumes through the timeline of the show reflect the chronology of World War II, from fashionable to rationed simplicity.
The sound design by Rob Boone felt almost like another character as it introduces the audience to the world of the play with a voice over of President Roosevelt talking to the American people. This moment was actually one of the most engaging for me as an audience member. The words of Roosevelt from (circa) 1940 could so easily be addressing our nation today. They resonated with me in such a way that my interest was immediately piqued and I was excited for the show I was about to experience – eager to see what other commentaries it might offer to further parallel “then” and “now.” However, the show never developed the commentary I anticipated from the words of Roosevelt, thus enveloping my entire experience with a degree of disconnect I just couldn’t shake.
Returning to the script, the language seemed to have a spiral-like pattern of repetition, which I believe was a tool the playwright gave the cast and director that wasn’t wielded effectively. In retrospect, I think the audience needed those repetitive moments to anchor us as observers to the beat shifts and tactical changes of the characters as they navigate their own connectivity. Instead I found myself lost in the dialogue, trying to understand what these characters were saying, and why they were saying it the way they were. The intentions that the actors were playing felt out of sync with the rhythms provided in the dialogue, further disengaging me. The use of accents may have added another layer of disconnect to this, with the cadence of the accents often taking over the performance, causing the meaning of what is being said or felt by the character to be lost in translation. In addition, I experienced a lack of chemistry between Garcia and Cormier, further impacting my confusion around character intentions. As I mentioned earlier, this is a story that I knew how it was going to end before it began, which means I was an extra hard sell when it comes to how invested I am throughout that journey, and I may be a harder sell than your average audience member when it comes to love stories in general.
By the end, instead of feeling warm and fuzzy, as I imagine the playwright, cast, and director wanted me to feel, I just felt “meh.” I ask again, why did I need to hear this story – again? In my effort to gain more clarity around this question, I watched the Arizona Public Media “Spotlight on the Arts” feature on this production (https://youtu.be/kJna42HDAnE). In this interview, Cormier discusses the way the show repeatedly brings the characters to the edge of connecting, and yet they consistently miss true connection. It’s interesting to consider this since I did experience these “missed connections,” but not it in a way that made me root for them, which is how Cormier describes her relationship with their evolution. Unfortunately, I lost interest in the story and characters instead.
I admittedly may be in the minority when it comes to my experience of Last Train to Nibroc. When the show ended, I heard people say “that was so good,” as well as other exclamations of enjoyment and satisfaction. I encourage folks to see Last Train to Nibroc for themselves – I do believe that this production is exactly what some people are looking for when they want to enjoy a night of theatre. Just because I didn’t make a love connection with it doesn’t mean you won’t.
Closing this week, you can see it Wednesday, October 30 through Saturday November 2 at 7:30pm, with 3:00pm matinees Saturday, November 2 and Sunday, November 3. Tickets are $35 by calling the Invisible Theatre Box Office at 520-882-9721 or purchasing online at invisibletheatre.com.