For Washington Stage Guild patrons, the downtown theatre company’s current production offers a bit of closure. After introducing DC audiences to a complicated young couple in Last Train to Nibroc in 2017, the Guild presented the follow up play See Rock City last year. Now May and Raleigh return for the Nibroc Trilogy’s final chapter, Gulf View Drive, once again directed by WSG’s artistic director Bill Largess.
I had not seen the previous two plays and so this was my first introduction to the star-crossed and complicated couple at the heart of the plays, May and Raleigh. The good news is, Arlene Hutton’s compact and richly drawn Gulf View Drive works on its own, and I had no trouble catching on to the dynamics of May and Raleigh’s life together or their family members. Hutton’s play was remarkably refreshing, hearkening back to not only a gentler time, but a time of dramas by William Inge – just regular folks, facing life on their own terms, but complicated by the follies of human nature.
Another reason Inge came to my mind is the time period of Gulf View Drive, 1952-53: Perry Como, Lucy and Ricky, and soaps like The Secret Storm ruled the television airwaves. Doris Day sang about her “Secret Love” and Johnny Ray would “Cry” his way into the hearts of millions. And in Florida, the construction boom brought hopeful, post-World War II couples looking for a piece of the American dream. Raleigh and May, married now, show off their modest home with a gorgeous view of the Gulf of Mexico to Raleigh’s mother, Mrs. Brummett. May’s mother, Mrs. Gill, already lives with the married couple. The quiet start to Gulf View Drive does not diminish the stakes that will be raised in surprising ways, a testament to Hutton’s compelling story and characters.
May, working as a high school English teacher, is a bit rigid; Raleigh, now a successful writer, is ever-kidding and sees the bright side of nearly every situation. But if opposites attract, May and Raleigh are meant for each other, even as portions of their lives clash head-on. Playing the couple for Washington Stage Guild as they have in the previous two plays, Lexi Langs and Wood Van Meter return to these roles once again. Langs finds a delicate balance between May’s condescending nature and her desire to accept change. Van Meter exudes charm while revealing the Raleigh’s darker hues. Both actors share an easy chemistry, no doubt honed through revisiting their characters from the earlier productions.
Complicating May and Raleigh’s living arrangement and lives, Mother Brummett becomes a long-term visitor in the already cramped Florida house. Mrs. Brummett, hailing from rural Kentucky, is now a widow, having just buried her husband. The play reveals deeper reasons for her time in Florida, as well as why her grown daughter, Treva, follows Ma Brummett to Raleigh and May’s house.
Mrs. Brummett is masterfully portrayed by WSG veteran actor Laura Giannarelli, most recently seen in a more glamorous role in All Save One. Giannarelli, returning to the role from last season’s See Rock City, plays the hardscrabble and tough-as-nails Ma Brummett with a salty edge that hides a vulnerable heart. The character is based on the playwright’s “mean grandmother” according to a talkback session; apparently, the real one was even more hell-on-wheels than Giannarelli’s character.
Gulf View Drive
closes February 17, 2019
Details and tickets
Hutton’s sweeter grandma forms the basis for May’s mother, Mrs. Gill, once again played by another WSG veteran, Lynn Steinmetz. Never saccharine, Steinmetz effortlessly portrays the gentile and ladylike Mrs. Gill. As many of us face aging parents and the realities of caring for them as their lives face changes they never expected, Hutton paints a compelling contrast with these two widows, maneuvering life on their own for the first time, having to depend on their adult children.
Into this early 1950s crucible of domesticity comes Treva, Raleigh’s sister, another refugee from Kentucky, without her children or husband in tow. Of course, therein lies part of the tale, and her part of the story adds even more complexity to the entire family. Chelsea Mayo brings to Treva both the world-weariness and childlike qualities of a woman who is playing catch up with her own life and dreams.
Largess, aside from his masterful casting, directs Gulf View Drive with an eye for detail, maintaining an easy pace while allowing the overlapping dialogue to bubble and perk naturally. His design collaborators make the most of the jewel-box-like playing space of the Undercroft Theater. Co-scenic designers Carl Gudenius and Jingwei Dai provide a realistic, cinder block house, focusing on the May and Raleigh’s covered back porch, or lanai. Marianne Meadows provides subtle lighting, and Sigrid Johannesdottir’s period wardrobe places the characters in the correct vintage.
Costuming is just one aspect of the early 1950s the production gets right. With subtlety and craft, Hutton weaves into the story the seismic changes that are just on the verge of shifting, namely the Civil Rights Era. While no black characters appear on stage, people of color figure prominently in the fabric of the play. May, as a teacher, faces the racial tensions of the time head on, a decision that ripples among the other characters, not heavy-handed, but a cogent reminder of the changing landscape.
Gulf View Drive by Arlene Hutton . Directed by Bill Largess. Featuring: Lexi Langs, Wood Van Meter, Laura Giannarelli, Lynn Steinmetz, and Chelsea Mayo . Scenic Design: Carl Gudenius and Jingwei Dai . Costume Design: Sigrid Johannesdottir . Assistant Costume Design: Phoebe Workman . Lighting Designer: Marianne Meadows . Sound Designer: Frank DiSalvo, Jr. . Stage Manager: Arthur Nordlie . Produced by Washington Stage Guild . Reviewed by Jeff Walker.