by Gail M. Burns, August 2005.
Alas, I managed to miss the popular 2001 MTC production of Arlene Hutton’s “Last Train to Nibroc” which tells the story of the courtship of May Gill and Raleigh Brummet, however I am glad to report that there is no need to see or read that play in order to thoroughly enjoy its sequel “See Rock City” which is being given its world premiere at the Miniature Theatre of Chester now through August 28.
As the play opens May and Raleigh are just returning from their delayed honeymoon, which was to have been spent in Chattanooga, but ended up being spent in Cincinnati. They are now living with May’s parents at her childhood home in Corbin, Kentucky, not far from Raleigh’s family homestead. Raleigh, a published writer, can neither work nor drive nor serve in the armed forces because of his epilepsy, and his attempt to attend college is thwarted because he was invalided out of the army just shy of the 90 days required to qualify for the GI Bill. It is August of 1945 and May is preparing to return to her job as school principal which supports them. In those days when a man’s place was on the battlefield or the assembly line and woman’s place was in the home, May and Raleigh’s reversed roles and failure to produce a child, or at least a pregnancy, during their first year of marriage are fodder for gossip. World War II is winding down, but during their honeymoon trip May’s brother Charlie has been sent back over to Europe. VE day takes place during the course of the play, and with the return of the soldiers May’s job is taken from her and given to a returning Veteran. How May and Raliegh will cope with their uncertain future is a problem left hanging at the end of the play (I smell another sequel coming!) but “See Rock City” is more concerned with the small events and the major blows that befall this young couple in the first year of their marriage.
The word “little” was used frequently by the press writing about “Last Train to Nibroc” and it applies here too. The Miniature Theatre performing a sweet little play by Arlene Hutton. It is little in length (one act which takes just under 90 minutes to perform), requires only four actors and one set, and is little in scope. Hutton just concerns herself with May and Raleigh and their mothers. These are not people with big thoughts or ambitions. Raleigh (Steve Kazee) and his mother-in-law Mrs. Gill (Kathy Lee Hart) are two laid back peas in a pod, dealing with the joys and limitations of their lives as best they can and taking pleasure in small things – Raleigh enjoys identifying the make and model year of every car that passes by and Mrs. Gill prides herself on her canning and cooking. While May (Eliza Baldi) worries about how she can care for herself and Raleigh and their aging parents, let alone any children, she obviously enjoys the power being the family bread-winner gives her. Raleigh’s mother, Mrs. Brummet (Susanne Marley), is a tiny, dry woman who refuses to expand her world to believe that her son has epilepsy or that her daughter-in-law could be using birth control. May and Mrs. Brummet are too much alike in their need to control Raleigh to appreciate each other, but tensions between a mother and daughter-in-law has not been uncommon over the millennia.
Each actor perfectly embodies the character he or she is given to play. Baldi’s May is young, smart, and headstrong. Kazee (a Kentucky native) brings the easy-going Raleigh to life. Yes, he is frustrated with his limitations, but he is also ambitious with his writing. May correctly assesses his needs at the end of the play, and ever though her solution seems drastic, you know that it is more likely to work for them as staying put.
Petite and rotund, Hart is every inch the rural housewife, content with her lot and proud of her skills to nurture and comfort. Marley is the complete opposite – angular and nervous – a mother unsure of her abilities but desperate for approval nonetheless. The two actresses make such a contrast. They know that this is May and Raleigh’s story and that they are just there for color and comic relief, but we have all know someone like one or the other or both of these women, which makes watching them that a special treat.
Hutton has an ear for how these people lived and spoke in this time and place, and every word rings true. Victor Magog has directed the piece in a very naturalistic and low-key manner. No one moves fast or raises their voice. Live proceeds as it always has and always does. The only thing that reminds you that you are in a theatre and not peering through a keyhole into other peoples lives is Regina Garcia’s set. Yes, it resembles a Kentucky farmhouse, but walls are cut away, window panes are covered in wallpaper, and the whole set is tilted so that it spills off of the front of the stage. No, this isn’t real, it is just an idea of how life might have been 60 years ago in Corbin, Kentucky.
I am such a Yankee that I had never heard of Rock City, Tennessee, a tourist attraction opened in 1932 by entrepreneur Garnet Carter atop Lookout Mountain, just six miles from downtown Chattanooga. Its Web site (www.seerockcity.com, natch!) bills it as “a true marvel of nature featuring massive ancient rock formations, gardens with over 400 native plant species, and breathtaking ‘See 7 States’ panoramic views.” This was Carter’s hedge against the Great Depression and, to get the word out, he enlisted the help of a young sign painter named Clark Byers, who painted “See Rock City” on the roofs of barns as far north as Michigan and as far west as Texas. Rock City is still going strong and you can now buy online a birdhouse just like the one May and Raleigh bring back to his mother. Of course, theirs didn’t come from Rock City, but the one you buy online may not either!
“See Rock City” is a charming end to the largely success “Season of Uncommon Love Stories” that the Miniature Theatre has mounted this summer. I hope that someday MTC, or another local theatre, takes the opportunity to present a double bill of “Last Train to Nibroc” and “See Rock City”. I think it would be wonderful fun to see these two plays with the same performers continuing through as May and Raleigh. Perhaps both in an evening with a hearty intermission, or maybe one in the late afternoon and one in the evening with a dinner break between, or the two plays playing alternate days. Whatever works. Arlene Hutton is clearly a playwright to be savored in small or large doses.
See Rock City runs through August 28 at the Miniature Theatre of Chester. The show runs about 90 minutes without an intermission. The play is gentle and certainly suitable for children 10 and up who enjoy a good story well told. For tickets and information call the box office at 413-354-7771.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2005