War-time romances that begin on a train are bound to be bumpy. Arlene Hutton’s Last Train to Nibroc at the Charleston Acting Studio is a sweet play about a handsome young man, Raleigh, and a beautiful young woman, May, who meet in 1940 on an east-bound train from California. She is headed home to Kentucky after a broken engagement to an Army pilot, and he is headed to New York City to be a writer after a medical discharge from Army pilot training. It just so happens that they are from the same part of Kentucky, and Raleigh knew May’s former fiance from pilot training. It isn’t a coincidence that he sits down in her railcar seat, but it may be fate that they are on the same train.
“It’s funny how trains put people together,” Raleigh tells May. Also riding the train that day are the deceased authors F. Scott Fitzgerald and Nathanael West on their way to their own funerals. May consistently thwarts Raleigh’s attempts at conversation, so with feigned defeat, he tells her he will just go back and ride with Scotty and Natty in the baggage car. Disarmed by Raleigh’s humor, May laughs and their romance begins.
They share their dreams, and talk of taking chances in life. He wants to move to New York to write — about Kentucky. Raleigh invites May to New York with him, but she refuses. May wants to go home, and she wants him to go home as well, but he’s afraid to go home and face the disappointment. His medical discharge on the eve of war leaves him feeling embarrassed and lesser of a man. May understands his embarrassment. She feels embarrassed over her broken engagement. His “fits” are diagnosed as epilepsy, but May mishears him and thinks he says “leprosy,” which provides fuel for comedy later in the play.
Under the direction of Jo Ellen Aspinwall, Hutton’s charming dialogue brings out the actors’ most likeable qualities. Storm Smith portrays the playful and flirty Raleigh with a mischievous self-assuredness, a complement to Celeste Riddle’s protective and demure May, who wears her religiousness like a doublebreasted wool coat.
Initially, Raleigh comes across as cocky and brave, ready to take on NYC, but underneath is fear and shame. May is much more of a homebody, but underneath her coy veneer is an opinionated and strong woman. Throughout the three scenes, Smith and Riddle carry the audience along with them as their characters’ relationship develops and fluctuates with the highs and lows of life, war, disappointment, and pain. Their banter is energetic and well-timed, and both actors are strong in their characterizations.
The third scene, however, suffers a lull in momentum in an attempt to provide depth to the characters and the plot, as the circumstances and dialogue are sober. The characters are closer and more open with each other. Their level of trust has matured, but the connection between the actors is lost temporarily. The energy and connection are lacking until the mood changes back to playful teasing, and the actors seem to return to the stage.
Overall, Smith and Riddle are talented actors, and Aspinwall directs them with insight and sensitivity. At times, the actors’ self-conscious moments reveal a thread that needs to be snipped so that they can let go and stop acting and inhabit their characters. Smith and Riddle are so close to being Raleigh and May, if they could just free themselves of that last morsel of reality.
The Charleston Acting Studio is such an intimate space and well-suited for a two-person play. The actors don’t have scenery and spectacle to distract the audience. Aspinwall deliberately and wisely keeps the overall design simple with a train seat and window in one scene and a park bench in another, and a small sitting room with a settee in the third. With a cozy and well-designed set and comfortable and attractive period costumes, the weight of the play rests on the actors. Smith and Riddle make the drive to James Island worth the trip.