A play worth seeing more than once, See Rock City is the “don’t miss” sequel to Last Train to Nibroc, the second part of Arlene Hutton’s Nibroc Trilogy American set piece featuring Nibroc’s young couple, May and Raleigh.
Quietly struggling with timeless inner truths, Lily Nicksay and Erik Odom in Arlene Hutton’s See Rock City at the Rubicon Theatre, downtown Ventura, through 14 February, 2016. Photo courtesy Zachary Andrews
The play easily stands up on its own, so do not make the mistake of staying away because you missed Last Train to Nibroc. This is a charming and sweet play, but don’t let this fool you: there is something underneath all the deceptively simple surfaces. One reason to see this play more than once.
Reprising their roles from Last Train to Nibroc, Lily Nicksay and Erik Odom in Arlene Hutton’s See Rock City at the Rubicon Theatre, downtown Ventura, through 14 February, 2016. Photo courtesy Zachary Andrews.
Following on Last Train to Nibroc, last season’s unexpected, smash hit, beloved by audiences and critics alike, is no small order. Nibroc set a high standard to reach with a powerful, iconic production featuring superb acting, directing, and production work all around.
If you can believe it, this time around, everyone is better. With this production we get the privilege of witnessing something special, the next step in the evolution of some major young talent. Another reason to see this play more than once. You don’t get to see this kind of thing at this level that often.
This is possible due to the wisdom of James O’Neil and Karyl Lynn Burns who brought back the actors Lily Nicksay and Erik Odom to reprise their lead roles. They also brought back Last Train to Nibroc’s director, Katherine Farmer, who at 21 was the youngest director ever of a Rubicon main stage production. This production further benefits by the presence during early rehearsals of the author herself.
The two leads have matured as actors, which adds all the more believability, depth, and sensitivity to the evolution of their characters. The big performance here is Erik Odom’s, who delivers greater nuance and power to his Raleigh than was possible within Last Train to Nibroc. It is clear that he and Farmer have worked some things out since we last saw them and the results show.
Rubicon Theatre has surrounded the two leads with two very experienced, quality actresses, Clarinda Ross and Sharon Sharth, playing Raleigh and May’s mothers respectively. Clarinda Ross nails Mrs Brummett, a relatively unsympathetic character, allowing us to understand her point of view, as well feel the burden she placed on young Raleigh. Sharon Sharth’s brings a much needed sensitivity to her Mrs. Gill, the stalwart emotional flagship of this family, whose breaking could break anyone’s heart.
Reviving an American theatre of quiet struggle and inner dignity, Lily Nicksay, Clarinda Ross, Erik Odom, and Sharon Sharth in Arlene Hutton’s See Rock City at the Rubicon Theatre, downtown Ventura, through 14 February, 2016. Photo courtesy Zachary Andrews.
O’Neil and Burns have arrayed some of the best production support available in the Rubicon family: Marcy Froehlich as costume designer, one of the best around anywhere, Mike Billing’s lighting and scene design, and Austin Quan’s sound design, with Jessie Vacchiano and Christina Burck providing Ms Farmer with the necessary production management.
On one level this is a period piece and Froehlich’s costume design is critical and spot on. The set and soundscape are so effective they essentially function as a fifth character.
The Nibroc Trilogy
For See Rock City to hold its own with Last Train to Nibroc is no small achievement, for on paper, as literature, the strongest play in the trilogy, as written, is the Last Train to Nibroc, which sustains a psychological and dramatic nuance and subtle complexity that is not quite equaled in the rest of the trilogy, proving once again one of the problems with all sequels in all media: It is extremely difficult and rare to equal the quality, force, and original inspiration of the initial breakthrough piece.
However, Hutton’s trilogy compensates for this somewhat by offering something more: it builds an extended narrative with a psychological and emotional journey that offers a whole considerably more satisfying than the sum of its parts.
With this in mind, it is thus exciting news to all theatre-lovers that Rubicon Theatre has announced it will do the third part of the trilogy next season, giving us a chance to experience this whole first-hand.
A Play About Theatre
What starts to emerge in See Rock City that was only hinted at in Last Train to Nibroc, is that Hutton significantly enlarged the scope of things and wrote something considerably more ambitious than what is encompassed in the first play. What emerges is, in the end, a much more important project for American theatre.
This is another reason to see this play more than once, and if you have the chance to see the entire trilogy, by all means do so, for Hutton’s trilogy itself is something special. She has done something very important here, something the full import of which will only come to be recognized over time.
By the time we are past the second scene in See Rock City, it is clear that the Nibroc Trilogy has become the portrait of a marriage, not just another boy meets girl piece, but a finely observed study of two people adapting expectations within a world of forces far greater than themselves. Not only that, it is a wonderfully sympathetic, unremitting gaze into the guts of America during one the most profound shifts in the American cultural terrain in the wake of World War II.
On top of all this, what Hutton accomplishes in this trilogy, is that it is not only a work that captures a period in our history, and the timeless story of a young couple living through that history, but she has captured the essence of an entire era in the history of American theatre. In other words, the Nibroc Trilogy not only captures the history, and a couple within this history of its time, it captures the look and feel of the theatre of this time. A theatre that was at its height in the 1940s and early 50s.
Thus what emerges in See Rock City is a clear meta-level, if you will, to the trilogy, an exacting and vital reconstruction of a type of theatre that was once at the core of American theatre, and to some extent its literature, for almost three decades.
Individuals quietly struggling with timeless inner truths
It was a theatre of quiet individual struggles in an often hostile world, of stark, humble realism, and carefully observed deep psychological truths. Of simple tales told in small towns or growing cities across America. It was a literature and theatre about ordinary people, not the rich, powerful, and famous.
It is an era of theatre that spawned a whole new breed of regional theatre companies and a uniquely American literary movement in places like Chicago and the West Coast and throughout small-town America, an America whose pace of life and values were quickly disappearing or transforming within a new America, an America flexing its new international muscles and building a different post-War world.
It was a theatre written by a small legion of homebred authors that fed a whole network of emerging regional theatre companies, month after month producing solid productions of a theatre built on a sense of individual struggle and search for justice in an often uncomprehending, fast-changing world. It was a theatre that calmly built with slow, even-paced narratives, one small moment at a time, the tale of the often lonely struggles of Americans trying to find their way in a larger, fast-changing world. It was a world portrayed via highly focused series of slice-of-life moments and everyday language. It was a theatre capable of delivering a deeply felt emotional punch, a theatre with a lot of guts and feeling and respect for the smaller lives of real human beings; people you already knew and passed on the way to the drug store.
What Hutton’s trilogy suggests by reproducing the values, look and feel of this specifically American theatre, is remind us that American theatre has perhaps moved too far away from some of its deepest foundations, a tradition of plays and short stories full of quiet tough characters that you once could meet on any street, in any town.
It was a theatre that built a whole new audience for theatre who recognized themselves in it and respected what it had to say, an audience that was eventually co-opted by the more pervasive post-war TV and film industries.
It was a theatre that had its quiet ways, but invariably delivered a deep emotional punch that audiences appreciated. There have always been American playwrights who continue to draw on these roots. This is what the Nibroc Trilogy plays do.
It is a tradition that eventually produced scripts with a larger scope like Our Town, On the Waterfront, Death of a Salesman, A Street Car Named Desire, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, all of which pull from this tradition. But for the most part it consisted of quieter works we no longer see or hear on our stages.
And lest we forget, it was also a theatre that helped spawn, indeed created the necessity for, a new approach to acting, Method acting, that departed from the overacting and artificiality of the theatre of manners of wry wit dominating Post -World War I theatre, a more realistic method capable of portraying the stark realism and deep struggles with inner truths that dominated this new American theatre.
Thus Hutton shows us that this rich vein is still to be mined, that there is plenty of gold left in those hills. She reminds us that this is our theatre, this isn’t some brutally conceptual European conceit, but something core and essential to our American culture, something that need not be forgotten, that is still in all of us.
Hutton herself mentions the alternative theatre of our times: plays reaching for ever darker themes and ever more sensational, if not bizarre, content, about people we will never personally know, or could know, full of psychopaths and strange, extreme incidents. Some of it is very good. But others have pointed out that an obsession with the macabre and bizarre is a sign of a late, exhausted, and weak time, a sign that a cultural moment is dying, no longer dynamic nor creative.
Eventually a sensationalist theatre can leave us empty. The Romans, by the way, tried this. Late Roman theatre has hands that are literally chopped off, live, sensational and totally non-every-day plots and themes, not to mention the other side of late Roman performance: the ultimate reality-shows of the Roman Coliseums where real people fought real battles to the death for the amusement of thousands.
Historically, after such phases of exhaustion and extravagance, culture revives itself by going back to something more basic, more grounded and pared down; something that can form the basis for new waves of creativity.
The emotionally satisfying nature of Hutton’s trilogy suggests that deep emotions and great theatre can be built out of quiet, deceptively simple, but real characters and situations portraying the depths underlying everyday life. In this Hutton has hit upon something of very deep significance for the future of theatre in this country. It is gratifying to see so much young talent taking this kind of project on and giving it its due.
The status of this script within the trilogy also gives us a clue as to just how good Katherine Farmer is as a director, for though the See Rock City script is thinner and less nuanced than the first play in the trilogy, Farmer milks it for all its worth and delivers an experience with an emotional punch and satisfaction that could only be achieved by first-rate directing. Even at the end, when we know that this play is clearly setting us up for the third part of the trilogy, we are still left with a satisfying sense of closure. This is no small achievement, for the play, as written, could leave us otherwise in lessor directorial hands.
See Rock City
by Arlene Hutton
directed by Katharine Farmer
starring Lily Nicksay, Erik Odom, Clarinda Ross, and Sharon Sharth
Rubicon Theatre Company
1006 East Main Street
Wed at 2 & 7, Thurs at 8, Fri at 8, Sat at 2 & 8, Sun at 2
Ends on 14 February 2016