With so many dramas these days built around bad behavior — the worse the better, it seems — it's a downright anomaly to come across a genuinely compelling story about ordinary people trying to do their best. All the more reason to appreciate the understated delicacy of "See Rock City," the second in playwright Arlene Hutton's "Nibroc" trilogy about a couple from rural Kentucky trying to cope with marital and societal upheaval during World War II and its aftermath.
Rubicon Theatre Company in Ventura reunites the cast and director from its stellar production of the first installment, "Last Train to Nibroc," with equally impressive results.
Lily Nicksay and Erik Odom reprise their roles as May and Raleigh, a serious-minded would-be missionary and an affable aspiring writer in their early 20s, whose best-laid plans were derailed by their chance meeting on a cross-country train ride.
Familiarity with their gently comic but unsentimental romantic ups and downs in the previous two-hander is helpful but not essential. Hutton's skillful scripting and the charming intimacy between the two actors brings us up to speed with the couple's relationship in the opening few minutes.
Now married and back living with May's family in eastern Kentucky, their story deepens even as it darkens amid the final convulsive year of the war in Europe, as they face new adult responsibilities and obstacles to their dreams of a bigger life.
Pitch-perfect staging by Katharine Farmer once again frames Hutton's deceptively simple, character-based style (reminiscent of Horton Foote's portraits of everyday life at their naturalistic best). Subtextual themes run closer to the surface this time around, as May runs up against the limits of career opportunities made possible by a wartime economy without an accompanying change in cultural norms. The medical condition that prompted Raleigh's military discharge — and set up the first play's whimsical concluding misunderstanding — is now a more serious obstacle to fulfilling his own ambitions.
Furthering our insight into May and Raleigh's contrasting natures and goals, Hutton brings their respective mothers onstage: one a gracious nurturing bedrock (Sharon Sharth), the other a bluntly dour pessimist (Clarinda Ross), both impeccably portrayed and each playing a pivotal part in the play's hard-hitting cliffhanger. Fortunately, the Rubicon has already announced the concluding chapter for its next season.
"See Rock City," 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 Feb. 14. $25-$54. (805) 667-2900 or www.rubicontheatre.org. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes.