Playwright: Arlene Hutton. At: Haven Theatre Company at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave. Tickets: 773-975-8150; www.haventheatrechicago.com; $28. Runs through: Sept. 6
Arlene Hutton's Courtship Play is the first in a trilogy recounting the progress of a Southeastern Kentucky couple in the years spanning World War Two and immediately after. Given the inclination toward epic narratives this region often inspires in playwrights ( cf. Robert Schenkkan's Kentucky Cycle ), Haven Theatre Company invites considerable risk in presenting it as a stand-alone production, putting extra pressure on the pair of actors charged with conjuring, on a Beckett-bare stage, a world larger than that usually shared by lovers.
We meet Raleigh and May at the same time as they do one anotheron the transcontinental railway in 1940 bound from Los Angeles for Chicago, the former dressed in Army Air Corps khakis and the latter, in a prim white suit and hat. Seeing an omen in their train providing burial transport for the bodies of the late F. Scott Fitzgerald and Nathaniel West, Raleigh contemplates continuing on to New York City to try his hand at a writing career after leaving the service. May favors the inspirational fiction of Lloyd C. Douglas and fantasizes about someday becoming a missionary. Gradually, they discover that their family homes make them neighbors, and we discover the reasons behind their return to rural environs where the annual Nibroc Festival in nearby Corbin is the high point of the community's year.
The effectuality of Courtship Plays relies on the extent to which the prospective sweethearts can ensure our emotional investment in their ultimate accord. As interesting as historical context can render well-worn tropes, the fact remains that if we don't sympathize with Raleigh's reluctance to reveal the cause of his medical discharge, or overlook May's failing to recognize "Nibroc" as "Corbin" spelled backwards ( verbal ineptitude surmounted when her country calls her to serve as a teacher in the local high school ), our patience with young fools incapable of getting out of their own way could easily expire before the last obstacle is swept asunder and amity triumphs.
This Chicago premiere owes its success to the performances of Mike Tepeli and Amanda Drinkall, assisted by Jason Gerace's direction and Kathy Logelin's dialect instruction. Together, they immerse us so thoroughly in a universe before television and internet made everybody a know-it-all that we can even buy into a silly final misunderstanding based on confusion arising from an overly-ecclesiastical vocabulary. Come see for yourself why sophisticated urban audiences were so entranced in 1999 by Hutton's wholesome hillfolk that they demanded she write two more plays about them.