You know that feeling you get sometimes when you watch one of those old classic movies, like It’s A Wonderful Life, or The Philadelphia Story, or Bringing Up Baby? Where everything is softly lit, and everyone’s hair looks gorgeous, and your heart has that kind of sweet ache of longing and hope? That’s what I felt last night at Last Train to Nibroc.
It’s a short play, and it’s the oldest story in the world, where a boy and a girl meet by chance and spend the next part of their lives dancing in circles around what they feel for each other. There’s courage, there’s fear, there’s heartbreak and misunderstanding and flirtation and humor. It’s everything you want from a charming romance.
The year is 1940, and charming U.S. soldier Raleigh is on a train, somewhere west of Chicago. He takes an open seat next to May, whose sometimes prickly exterior hides a romantic and compassionate heart. The rest is history. The roles of Raleigh and May are played by An Other Theater Co members Bryce Lloyd Fueston and Laura Elise Chapman, whose recent marriage in real life adds some extra sparkle to their onstage chemistry.
And that’s exactly what I needed last night. Something sparkly. While our own lives don’t have the backdrop of a world war like May and Raleigh’s do, most of us are fighting a few wars of our own. It’s been a truly exhausting year, with a pandemic, an earthquake, a windstorm, an ongoing fight for racial justice, and an election that has a Supreme Court justice hanging in the balance. And the things that normally bring us comfort—time with loved ones, theatre, movies—have some intense restrictions.
While our own lives don’t have the backdrop of a world war like May and Raleigh’s do, most of us are fighting a few wars of our own.
At An Other Theater Company, we knew that producing theatre in the “usual” ways would endanger our entire community. We also strongly believe that COVID-19 precautions are a racial issue, an LGBTQ issue, and an issue of income equality. Members of marginalized groups may not receive the kind of adequate medical care they need if they become infected.
Theatre is not safe unless there is adequate distance and/or mask use for EVERYONE, actors and technicians included. But we also strongly believe that the arts are a vital part of being human. Live theatre can be a healing and strengthening force in challenging times. We couldn’t offer that in our usual home in the Provo Towne Centre Mall. So we moved into the parking lot. We cast two actors who live in the same household, grabbed our masks, and spent weeks figuring out how to get the sound of their voices into car radios and headsets. We rehearsed outdoors and over Zoom and found a new way to tell an old story.
And it worked. Good heavens, it worked.
Watching May and Raleigh's "will they won't they" story unfold under the open sky made my hopelessly romantic heart sing. I was transported to all of those magical romantic moments that so many of us either long for or treasure. I was 19 and walking with a boy under a starry sky on a warm night. I was smiling at that girl at summer camp, certain that she was holding my gaze just a few seconds longer than necessary. I was filled with butterflies and fireworks and longing, and watching Last Train to Nibroc, I felt, for just a little while, a respite from the chaos of 2020. I drove away from the Provo Towne Centre Mall parking lot feeling a little bit lighter, a little bit more whole.
There isn’t anything particularly challenging in Last Train to Nibroc. Raleigh says something that hurts May's feelings. May misunderstands Raleigh. Letters are exchanged, festivals are attended, porches are sat on. The play isn’t sharply political or a work of deep social commentary. But it is important. It is a simple reminder that in times of uncertainty and grief, to love is a defiant act of hope.
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