When producing a play, the pressure is on the director to interpret the playwright’s original work respectfully and correctly. When the playwright is still very much alive and could walk in at any moment, that pressure is even higher. That’s what Jo Ellen Aspinwall discovered over the course of directing Arlene Hutton’s Last Train to Nibroc at the Charleston Acting Studio.
Hutton currently serves as the artist-in-residence at the College of Charleston, which allowed her to consult on the local production of her award-winning play. The plot is simple, centered around the conversations of a couple who meet on a train in 1940. He’s a discharged soldier who wants to be a writer, and she’s a rich girl from Kentucky who wants to be a missionary. When it was originally produced off Broadway in 1999, the play earned favorable reviews from critics at The New York Times and Time Out New York, among others.
Director Aspinwall was drawn to the purity of the story. “I think that simplicity is part of what called out to me,” she says. “You can’t get distracted by gimmicks. It’s got to be about the acting and the storytelling. I love that. There’s nowhere to hide in a story that simple. You have to be dead-on with the characterization and the moments that you’re creating.”
Aspinwall was originally exposed to the play last year while studying for her MFA in directing at the University of Southern Mississippi. She performed a staged reading of the play, and it was there that she first met Hutton. She spent a few evenings with the playwright in rehearsal, and Hutton’s been on-call for this production as well.
“It’s a little scary because you want her to be happy with what you’ve done with her work,” Aspinwall says. “At the same time, she’s really gracious and wonderful and has said, ‘I trust you, and I trust these actors.’ She hasn’t been intimidating at all to work with. The pressure has come from wanting to do a good job.
“It makes some choices much easier,” she adds of the playwright’s proximity. “You can spend a lot of time in rehearsal trying to solve a problem, thinking ‘What did she mean by this?’ Thankfully we can just call her and say, ‘Arlene, what did you mean?’ In some ways it saves a lot of time. In other ways it’s very interesting because you work through a problem and you have to be careful not to fall into the trap of second-guessing … You have to trust that you’ve had enough conversations with her and you’re clear enough and on the same page enough that your choices are going to be the right choices. You have to trust yourself as much as she is trusting you.”
The play stars CofC students Celeste Riddle and Storm Smith, both of whom are making their Charleston Acting Studio debuts. “We’re having a wonderful time working through this,” Aspinwall says. “They jumped into it with all of their heart. They are creating some really engaging characters.”
The set design, by Shana Solomon, was created to reflect the simple settings of Hutton’s play: a train, a park bench, and a front porch. “The challenge for her was to create something that would help the audience understand but not be a distraction,” Aspinwall says. “Because the play is so very clean and so very simple, we didn’t want design work that was too frilly. We wanted a suggestion of the world that they’re in to support them.”