An Old-Fashioned Melodrama For Today

by Jillian Carter

When I was assigned to review a melodrama in Seward, I had no idea what to expect. I only knew that the Goehner Centennial Players were presenting Love Rides the Rails or Will the Mail-Train Run Tonight, at the Olde Glory Theatre, a half hour trip from my house. I didn’t know about the history of the Olde Glory Theatre or the Goehner Centennial Players. I didn’t even know that “Goehner” was the name of a town! Imagine my surprise to find that this is the 26th melodrama presented by the players, and that it is expected to draw well over a thousand audience members. Color me shocked to hear that, in its heyday, the annual Goehner melodrama would attract 5,000 people, including tour buses from Omaha and Lincoln! (For reference, Goehner only has about 175 people in the town.)

As soon as I stepped into the theatre, I could see why. From the improbably gorgeous train engine on the stage (borrowed from Grand Central Foods in York) to the program filled with old-timey phrases and fonts, the atmosphere was ripe for a good old-fashioned romp through the railyard. The program promised “crowded houses, lively audiences, and enthusiastic applause,” and it did not disappoint. The gingham covered tables were near capacity, and the crowd was clearly eagerly anticipating curtain time.

I must confess that the melodrama started a bit slower than I was expecting, not matching the energy level in the room. However, it picked up quickly, plunging the audience into the world of a deliciously dark villain, aptly named Simon Darkway, played with dastardly delight by Justin Baldinger, and hopefully thwarted by the pure-of-heart pair of hero/heroine, played with noble naivete by Samuel Dunbar and Elizabeth Mavis. Baldinger obviously relished his role, from his facial expressions and eyebrow wiggles to his disturbing hand movements and the swirls of his cape. Dunbar and Mavis made an adorable couple, with Mavis really coming into her own in the second act, and Dunbar convincingly carrying the weight of the railroad on his broad shoulders.

The highlights of the program, however, were the sidekicks. Rory Nolan, as the villain’s comrade, Dirk Sneath, practically steals the show with his commitment to character and high energy. Even though he is an integral part of the evil plot, you can’t help rooting for him a little bit. Andrew Alley, as the hero’s best friend, Harold Standfast, is also a force to be reckoned with, bringing some adorable comic relief and physicality. Also notable were Kathy Runyan as the wily Carlotta Cortez and Amalia C. Miller as Carlotta’s maid, Fifi. Runyan’s solo, “Lover Man,” in Act III was one of the best songs in the show. While Miller’s part was small, she threw herself into it completely and with hilarious results, cementing her place as one of my favorites.

The set design, billed in the program as “The Elegant and Lavish Scenic Effects Are Designed, Painted, and Executed by Pam Williams,” was close to genius. It unfolded into eight different settings like some sort of giant theatrical origami. The cast carried out the set changes, which is something I generally find distracting, but there was some planned and unplanned fun that kept them from being painful. At one point, Alley moved a rock, only to have it moved right back by Mavis. Little touches like that kept the audience laughing during the downtimes, which is quite a feat.

The best part of any melodrama, and particularly of this long-running tradition, is the sense of community that is palpable in the theatre. It is impossible not to get caught up in the show when everyone around you is booing and hissing the villain, cheering for the heroes, and even yelling admonishments and advice at the characters. I’m so glad I got to see Love Rides the Rails because it reminded me that community is the whole point of community theatre. From borrowing a train from a grocery story and costumes from Nebraska Wesleyan, to finding a new venue when the only one in Goehner closed, this show only happens every year because the community pulls together and makes it happen. Director Patrick Runyan has created something remarkable here that is rare and valuable. Kudos to the cast, crew, and all the people who have worked to keep this tradition going for thirty years!

If you go: Love Rides the Rails is being performed at The Olde Glory Theatre at 348 Jackson Avenue in Seward, Nebraska. Remaining performances are May 30 and 31 and June 1, 2, and 4-9. Tuesdays and Wednesdays are pop and popcorn performances at 7:30 pm. Thursdays thru Saturdays are prime rib dinner performances at 6:30 pm. Sundays are dessert matinees at 2:00 pm. Tickets are available by calling Lloyd Schulz at 402-523-5025.

Jillian Carter is the editor of Appearing Locally and a Lincoln playwright, actress, and director. She also has a column about community theater in the Lincoln Journal Star’s Ground Zero.

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