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Strangers, Then Intimates on a Train at Capital Fringe

Capital Fringe is well under way in its eighth year in Washington, D.C. While the two-and-a-half-week theater festival doesn’t have the draw of its New York counterpart, it still brings a great deal of artistic talent to the area and a chance to showcase independent productions to a wide-ranging audience. Over an 18-day period in 18 venues, 130 different shows will provide 738 performances. One of those shows is “Last Train to Nibroc.”

The play, written by Arlene Hutton and directed by newcomer Scott Sparks, opens in December 1940. It’s the holiday season and Raleigh, a soldier on leave, finds an empty seat next to May, a young, idealistic woman determined to be a missionary. Raleigh, played by Justin McLachlan, a D.C.-based writer who works for FishbowlDC, confesses that he is not merely going on leave, he’s been discharged from service and intends to move to New York City. (Disclosure: McLachlan and I have previously worked together.) May, played by Lena Winter, a graduate of the Honors Conservatory, believes he should do the brave thing and come home to Kentucky.

“Last Train to Nibroc” is a performance centered on conversation and rapport. Raleigh and May share their optimism for what lies ahead, and then the audience sees them again, one and two years later, when their once-effusive selves have been replaced by more mature and hardened versions who have experienced disappointments in life. Winter and McLachlan have the easy rapport of old friends, teasing one another while challenging the ideals each of them holds. Throughout the play, each reveals their vulnerabilities, poignant for a time when male weakness and female independence were topics to avoid. The audience views a window into the seemingly nostalgic time of World War II, while showing the very real consequences of war, illness and economic depression.

Much of modern entertainment comes from flash, suspense, excitement, loud noises and dramatic twists. “Nibroc” doesn’t have any of those — McLachlan and Winter make do with a simple wooden bench and chairs and minimal plot twists.

Their lively train conversation resembles that of Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in the “Before Sunrise” film series, and their waning enthusiasm for war and the hard life of farming is reminiscent of a Willa Cather novel. “Last Train to Nibroc” shows the journey of the human heart through change and disappointment. Raleigh’s physical ailments separate him from his peers and leave him unsure of his future. May’s single-minded outlook is replaced by genuine understanding of human vulnerability and weakness. Both characters struggle to find a balance between accepting their limitations and admitting failure.

For the audience, the ending is less dramatic and clever than it is realistic, humble and heartening. For those interested in viewing a Capital Fringe show with depth and a subtle understanding of human interaction, “Last Train to Nibroc” will prove a resounding success.

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