Entertaining, but Overreaching Gulf View Drive
Also see Bob's review of Shooting Star
The Nibroc Trilogy is an ambitious trio of Southern plays by Arlene Hutton which attempts to portray the difficult navigation of a family through the fifteen years of changing social currents in America from 1940 through 1954. When first produced, the author conceived it as a self-contained piece. However, over the period of almost a decade, Hutton expanded her vision to include two successor plays.
The concluding play of the trilogy, Gulf View Drive, is currently being presented by Alliance Repertory. It is designed to be able to stand alone and has much to recommend it as a breezy, not quite as off-kilter as Crimes of the Heart, Southern comedy. However, in the second of two acts, Hutton's forced inclusion of social issues not directly related to the household play as a polemic intrusion on a breezy, humorous play. Furthermore, her characters frequently act in a manner which is completely at odds with their histories, attitudes and established behaviors. This appears to be due to Hutton's desire to squeeze social history into her narrative, and her inability to maintain character integrity throughout her trilogy.
The first play of the trilogy, Last Train to Nibroc, is set months before Pearl Harbor, and depicts the meeting of May and Raleigh, two very young adults, headed home to Corbin, Kentucky, on a train from the West Coast. May has broken up with her soldier fiancÚ whom she was visiting there. May is a rigid, born again Christian, who intends to be a missionary overseas with a like minded husband. Raleigh has received a medical discharge from the Army and, after visiting home, will be leaving for New York to pursue a career as a writer. Despite their differences, Raleigh manages to win May's heart during an extended three year courtship.
The second play, See Rock City, begins a year later (1944) and depicts the state of May and Raleigh's marriage from the porch of their small Kentucky house where they are overwhelmed by Mrs. Gill, May's warm, nurturing mother, and, Mrs. Brummett, Raleigh's domineering, rigid mother. May thrives during the war, rising from school teacher to principal, but Raleigh's rural stories have stopped selling and he feels diminished and lacking in value.
Now to Gulf View Drive, the play at hand. It is almost a decade later1953 to be exactand we find ourselves on the screened-in porch of Raleigh and May's modest house on Gulf View Drive in a small island community on the gulf coast of Florida. Raleigh is proud of his house, as well as his successful, on-going series of boy's adventure books. May is a busy, socially conscious school teacher, and a stickler for Christian family values. May's very pleasant mother has been staying with them since her husband died almost a year ago. In very short order, May's mother is joined there by Raleigh's impossibly judgmental, just widowed mother, and then her daughter, Raleigh's sister Treva. The slothful Treva has left her two sons in Kentucky with her in-laws (her husband is off, working in Detroit, and is given to beating Treva). Raleigh's mom and sister have been dispossessed from the family farm (they were actually tenant farmers) and are poised to become permanent residents at Raleigh and May's house. As for Treva's sons, Raleigh says, sure, bring them down.
For one act, this set-up produces genuine fun as Raleigh happily and generously falls over himself to accommodate his mother and sister's every whim. These southern eccentrics are more fun to be with than Beth Henley's Magrath sisters in Crimes of the Heart.
If we were to stop to think, we would ask, "Is this the same Raleigh who spent years in New York while leaving his mother and sister to perform hard labor on their tenant farm during the decades that his father was an invalid?". Which would lead us to another question, "Is this the same Treva who labored side by side with her mother to keep the family farm?".
By act two, Hutton lays on the outside social issues with a trowel, the inconsistencies of character rise to new heights, and the humor which buoyed us throughout the act one only flickers intermittently. Actions and thoughts, particularly those of May, Treva and Raleigh, antithetical to character abound. When Hutton has May agree with a bit of lovely praise for New York City expressed by Raleigh, it is so incongruous that alarm bells and flashing lights might just as well accompany the performance.
Under the circumstances, the solid performances of Veronica Friedman (May), Matt McCarthy (Raleigh), Cody Dalton (Mrs. Gill) and Lynn Langone (Treva) are particularly praiseworthy. Terri Sturtevant (Mrs. Brummett) is overly broad, turning Raleigh's obnoxious mother into a comedy sketch figure. Director Michael J. Driscoll clearly knows Drive's strengths, and his direction wisely plays to them.
The first act is largely delightful. So, if you find yourself in the neighborhood, Gulf View Drive is worth a visit.
Gulf View Drive continues performances (Friday and Saturday 8 pm) through January 28, 2012 at Alliance Repertory Theatre at the Studio Theatre of the Union County Performing Arts Center, 1601 Irving Street, Rahway, New Jersey 07065.
Gulf View Drive by Arlene Hutton; Directed by Michael J. Driscoll