A chance encounter on an overcrowded cross-country train from Los Angeles makes unlikely travel companions out of two displaced souls in their early 20s, each retreating homeward from setbacks that mirror national upheaval and uncertainty in “Last Train to Nibroc.”
Set against the end of the Great Depression and the outbreak of World War II, “Last Train to Nibroc” never surrenders its intimate specificity, even as it resonates with broader concerns. That rare balancing act is as much a credit to the understated eloquence of Arlene Hutton’s romantic two-hander as it is to the focused, buoyant staging of Rubicon Theatre Company’s touching revival.
Written in 1999, this first installment in Hutton’s “Nibroc” trilogy takes its name from a prominent annual festival in southeastern Kentucky, the region from which its protagonists hail.
Shared place of origin notwithstanding, the differences between the two train passengers are immediately apparent when Raleigh (Erik Odom), a recently discharged soldier still in uniform, spots prim and proper May (Lily Nicksay) reading a novel steeped in inspirational platitudes. An aspiring writer himself, Raleigh’s literary tastes run more to Nathanael West and F. Scott Fitzgerald, authors who by a witty coincidence happen to be traveling on the same train -- albeit in the baggage car, both having died within a day of each other. Such is the graceful way Hutton weaves narrative with historical details without overplaying her dramatist hand.
Lest the quirky setup and initial banter suggest a mawkish love story in the offing, two subsequent scenes chart an unsentimental course through the next three years of these characters’ real-world complexities, disappointments and unexpected connectedness.
Under Katharine Farmer’s assured, insightful direction, Odom and Nicksay demonstrate theatrical savvy and maturity well beyond their years, radiating seriocomic charm with nary a wasted word, sidelong glance or emotional beat in this poignant, under-appreciated play.
“Last Train to Nibroc,” Rubicon Theatre, 1006 E. Main St., Ventura. 2 and 7 p.m. Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends May 10. $25-$49. (805) 667-2900 or www.rubicontheatre.org. Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes.