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“Last Train to Nibroc” is just the beginning of a fine romance

Confession: I was lured to Arlene Hutton’s two-character play “Last Train to Nibroc” by the following teaser: “In December 1940, an East-bound cross-country train carries the bodies of the great American writers Nathanael West and F. Scott Fitzgerald.”

As it turns out, those two writers, who died within a day of each other in Los Angeles, in late Dec. 1940, are traveling in their coffins, headed for burial in New York (West) and Maryland (Fitzgerald). And Hutton’s play is far more concerned with the destiny of two “unknowns” – May (Amanda Drinkall), and Raleigh (Mike Tepeli) – who are very much living, and breathing young travelers. They also just happen to be headed East from California on the same train.

‘LAST TRAIN TO NIBROC’

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

When: Through Sept. 6

Where: Haven Theatre at

Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont

Tickets: $28

Info: (773) 975-8150;

http://www.haventheatrechicago.com

Run time: 90 minutes with no intermission

May is reluctantly returning home to Kentucky after a disappointing visit with a boyfriend in Los Angeles. Raleigh is set on trying his luck as a writer in New York after being discharged from the Air Force for a health problem. Their first meeting is edgy, with the charming, talkative Raleigh, still in uniform, breaking the ice by asking if he can take the seat beside May on the crowded train. Pretty, proper and guarded, she is far from welcoming. But Raleigh takes this as a challenge. And the hint of a spark begins to be felt.

Each of them is trying to keep up appearances in the face of disappointments, and it quickly becomes apparent that they’ve each met their match in stubbornness. They also discover they grew up in neighboring Kentucky towns, which warms things up considerably. Clearly this trip will not be a one time thing, although, as Shakepseare told us, “the course of true love never did run smooth.”

While the setup is certainly familiar, the scenes that follow are full of surprises as Hutton follows May and Raleigh over a number of years – from America’s gradual entry into World War II to its conclusion, with several separations, misunderstandings and re-connections. Along the way, each of them faces a variety of personal and professional challenges and successes, and a sense that both the world at large, and their own corner of it, have changed significantly.

Mike Tepeli and Amanda Drinkall in the haven Theatre production of Arlene Hutton's "Last Train to Nibroc." (Photo: Austin D. Oie)

Mike Tepeli and Amanda Drinkall in the haven Theatre production of Arlene Hutton’s “Last Train to Nibroc.” (Photo: Austin D. Oie)

Under the perfectly understated direction of Jason Gerace, Drinkall and Tepeli (who were such a memorable pairing in Gerace’s hit production of “Great Expectations” at Strawdog Theatre a few seasons back) are luminous and wholly beguiling. And they generate just enough ache and mutual agitation, as well as admiration, to suggest their growing love for each other. The actors are most skilled in showing how two people with strong characters can grow and change yet never lose their essential selves.

The work of designers Brittany Dee Bodley (costumes), Joanna Iwanicka (set), Sarah Hughey (lighting), and Joe Court (sound), skillfully underscores the play’s essential minimalism.

Hutton, whose “Last Train to Nibroc” is part of  “The Nibroc Trilogy,” which also includes “See Rock City” and “Gulf View Drive,” is a New York-based playwright who, not surprisingly, was born and bred in the South. She knows how people talk. And while you can hear a bit of Horton Foote, Alfred Uhry and Thornton Wilder in “Nibroc,” her stylish yet unaffected voice is very much her own. This production will leave you wishing to hear a great deal more of it.