“See Rock City” – A Different Kind of War Story

REVIEW BY CARY GINELL

“A person’s got to have something to do,” newlywed May Brummett says to her husband Raleigh, in a scene from the Rubicon Theatre Company’s evocative drama, See Rock City. That statement sums up the theme in this second installment in Arlene Hutton’s trilogy dealing with a young Kentucky couple trying to make a life for themselves during the waning years of World War II. Last year, the Rubicon staged Last Train to Nibroc, the first in the series, in which we were introduced to May and Raleigh, who happen upon one another while retreating homeward after both suffered personal setbacks. In See Rock City, we find the couple returning to their Kentucky home after their honeymoon, which saw them make a forced detour from their original destination of Rock City, a local tourist destination in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and instead, coming by way of Cincinnati. 

Rock City turns out to be a metaphor for Raleigh’s misdirection in his own life as a husband and provider. An aspiring author of short stories, he has fallen on hard times, as most magazine editors are now requesting tales of combat from the war overseas. Raleigh, having received a medical discharge after being diagnosed with epilepsy, had no such first-hand knowledge and finds himself feeling lost and emasculated, while May, an overworked elementary school teacher, proves to be the breadwinner of the couple. In See Rock City, the couple grapples with their respective roles as husband and wife, but most importantly, learn how to communicate with each other, expressing, sometimes directly but mostly awkwardly, their feelings toward each other and their future together. “Last Train to Nibroc was more about movie love ,” actress Lily Nicksay, who plays May, said, in a talkback session after Wednesday night’s performance. In the course of the play, Nicksay explained how Raleigh and May “learn how to stay in love,” despite the difficulties they face in their hardscrabble lives. Erik Odom, who plays Raleigh, agreed, adding that See Rock City tells what happens after the “happily ever after,” when couples come down to earth and realize that, in a marriage, the struggles never really end. “It’s just ordinary people trying to do their best,” Nicksay concluded.

Nicksay and Odom are reprising their performances as May and Raleigh in Last Train to Nibroc, but in See Rock City, the emotions they exhibit are more intense. Raleigh feels useless in the marriage. Because of his debility, he is unable to get a driver’s license, and gazes at every car that drives by the Brummett house, where he and May live with May’s parents, wistfully identifying the model of each vehicle as it passes. Raleigh is also unsuited for factory work, since the threat of flashing lights could set off another epileptic fit. It was unusual for a young man in his twenties to be home during World War II, and Raleigh and his family, especially his crusty mother, have become social outcasts. Mrs. Brummett has never accepted her son’s debility; she chalks it up to “jes’ bein’ lazy,” and nags Raleigh about getting “a real job,” having all but given up on her son making anything of himself. 

The story mirrors that of The Best Years of Our Lives, the 1946 film that won Best Picture honors and a supporting actor Oscar for Harold Russell, a Canadian-American who lost both hands in a WWII explosion. In the movie, Russell was recruited to play Homer Parrish, a returning serviceman who, like Raleigh, was ostracized by society due to a physical disability. In See Rock City, Raleigh is also the target of discrimination, as he discovers that returning veterans receive preference on any jobs offered. He is left to dejectedly read rejection notices from publishers, as May earns all the money for the family.

May is the stabilizing force in the story. Although on the surface she is a sweet-natured romantic, we find her to have a sturdy, moralistic soul and an unbending determination to keep the family going. When she is laid off, her anticipated new job as a school principal taken by a returning veteran, her spirit is all but broken. Nicksay is wonderful in this scene, crying real tears as she realizes the now tangible threat to her life with Raleigh. Odom is masterful in his characterization of Raleigh, initially playing the devil-may-care country boy, but whose nature soon turns gloomy after constant rejection and frustration with his condition leads him to feel increasingly isolated and helpless. 

Clarinda Ross is outstanding as Mrs. Brummett, utilizing a perfect backwoods accent and humorless attitude that sounds like Minnie Pearl without the sunny disposition. Sharon Sharth plays May’s mother, Mrs. Gill, a folksy sort who enjoys the simple domestic pleasures of life: home brewed iced tea on a hot day, canning squash pickles, and making peach cobbler. Sharth undergoes a stark and unsettling change toward the end of the play when she learns of a personal tragedy in her life. In the final scene, May invites her shattered mother to sit next to her on the front porch bench, but the distance between them is palpable, and Mrs. Gill just stares off into the distance. Sharth’s portrayal of the change in Mrs. Gill is remarkably haunting and effective. 

See Rock City displays a completely different America of 70 years ago, when technological devices were limited to the radio and life was slower and less hectic. The value of sugar as a rationed commodity is also stressed; sweet desserts and sugary drinks like lemonade were rare treats, and the characters savor their enjoyment of each of these as they would a birthday or other special occasion. The down-home feeling is accentuated by Mike Billings’ effective set design and Austin Quan’s atmospheric use of sound: automobiles rattling by, the nighttime sounds of chirping crickets and hooting owls, and the scratchy broadcasts of war news and speeches by President Roosevelt introducing each scene.

The play is beautifully directed by 22-year-old Katharine Farmer, a London native who is noted as being the youngest director to helm a main stage production at Rubicon, Farmer also directed Last Train to Nibroc, garnering an Ovation Award nomination and “Critic’s Choice” acknowledgement from the Los Angeles Times

On Tuesday, February 9, See Rock City will be filmed as part of a DVD recording of the trilogy, which will be released next season when Rubicon will stage the third and final segment of the series, Gulf View Drive. Nicksay and Odom are scheduled to reprise their roles in that production as well. 

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See Rock City plays through February 14 at the Rubicon Theatre Company. For dates and showtimes, see the VC On Stage Calendar. 

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