The intimate character-based play “Gulf View Drive” at the Rubicon Theatre in Ventura thoroughly satisfies on its own merits, but the finely tuned performances, script and staging also fittingly conclude a three-year project to present Arlene Hutton’s complete “Nibroc Trilogy.”
The returning Rubicon cast and director Katharine Farmer maintain the high standards set in Hutton’s two preceding plays about a mid-20th century couple from rural Kentucky. Broad historical currents are rendered with the turning points in the fabric of everyday lives.
The terrific chemistry has further deepened between Erik Odom and Lily Nicksay in the trilogy’s central roles: jocular aspiring writer Raleigh and primly principled schoolteacher May, who first met cute aboard the “Last Train to Nibroc.” Against a turbulent World War II backdrop, their rocky relationship endured further sacrifice, opportunities and disappointments in the middle play, “See Rock City” (for which both performers were nominated at the recent L.A. Stage Alliance Ovation awards, with Niksay winning in the lead actress category).
“Gulf View Drive” shifts locales to a sleepy western Florida beach town in the postwar boom years, a cinderblock-and-palm-tree paradise stylishly evoked in Mike Billings’ back porch set and Marcy Froehlich’s period costumes.
Having weathered their share of conflicts and separations in the previous plays, Raleigh is now a successful author and May is still teaching. Their visceral rapport is immediately apparent — a sheepish grin and steely glare speak volumes as their emotions resonate like tuning forks.
The couple’s hard-won stability is upended when their now-widowed mothers invade for the holidays, with no departure in sight. Sharon Sharth and Clarinda Ross reprise their respective “See Rock City” roles as May’s cheerily pragmatic middle-class homemaker mom, and the grumpy matriarch of Raleigh’s dirt-poor sharecropper clan. Their contrasting natures continue to amusingly expose and amplify Raleigh and May’s wildly divergent roots.
Hospitality is strained to the breaking point by the arrival of Raleigh’s troubled sister (Faline England). On the lam from a failing marriage, her moody petulance perfectly channels her mom’s dour gloom — the adage that mothers live in daughters never rang more true.
Adding a fifth character brings significantly more complexity to this chapter, with seemingly unrelated plot threads that take their time converging in an artfully constructed denouement. Director Farmer’s assured hand keeps the story insightful, articulate and witty without eclipsing emotional authenticity.
Throughout the “Nibroc Trilogy,” playwright Hutton has shown how the everyday lives of fundamentally decent people can be every bit as compelling as those who break bad. They can also inspire in face of ever-present social issues. Along their journey, her characters have had to cope with disability, unemployment, sexism, spousal abuse and illiteracy. Amid the racist undercurrents of a pre-civil rights era, Raleigh and May face a final test of character that we all could only hope to pass with as much integrity.
“Gulf View Drive”
Where: Rubicon Theatre, 1006 E. Main St., Ventura
When: 2 and 7 p.m. Wednesday (with talk-backs), 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday; ends Feb. 12.
Info: (805) 667-2900 or www.rubicontheatre.org
Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes
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