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Tale of newlyweds in wartime has high points, rough patches

CHESTER -- The Miniature Theatre of Chester is tucked away in a rustic corner of the Berkshires; it performs small plays in an informal atmosphere in the Chester Town Hall. There is nothing glamorous about it, but the best work it does can be as satisfying as what's being produced in the more celebrated venues around the area that bills itself as America's premiere cultural resort.

The final play of the summer season is the first full-scale professional production of a new work by Arlene Hutton, ''See Rock City," a sequel to her two-character hit ''Last Train to Nibroc," which has had more than 30 productions on the regional and university circuit over the last five years. The new play and its production have their moments, but the intimacy of the Miniature Theatre magnifies the effect of good and bad alike.

The play picks up the story of the young Kentucky newlyweds Raleigh and May, whose courtship was the subject of ''Last Train." The time is toward the end of World War II, between the invasion of Normandy and the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. We learn about the progress of the war on the family radio; personal dramas emerge in the conversations between Raleigh and May and in encounters with their mothers. May's is a domestic earth mother, always busy in the kitchen, putting up preserves or offering lemonade and iced tea to family and visitors. Raleigh's sharecropper mother is a narrowly religious, sharp-tongued virago. Raleigh is a writer, self-educated to a high degree, who dreams of college and maybe even New York. He wants to grow away from his roots; May needs to stay close to hers.

Hutton, the pseudonym of actress/director Beth Lincks, has told interviewers that Raleigh and May reflect her parents and their story. The tone is affectionate but not sentimental: The language sounds authentic, and the domestic vignettes feel real. Raleigh names the make and model of every car that goes by -- a symbol of his longing for escape -- and country people respond to problems with gifts of food.

Most of the play's emotions and conflicts are also convincing: May's problems with the all-male board of the school where she teaches and serves as principal, Raleigh's uneasy status as a young man at home, not away at war (he was discharged because of his epilepsy).

But Hutton's attempt to shove the vignettes into the plot of an old-fashioned, well-made play is less successful. The fate of an offstage brother in the war is sealed from the moment his name is mentioned, and the delightful period-piece domestic scenes alternate with soap-opera domestic crises with mechanical regularity.

Hutton's command of regional language is a gift to the actors, and Kentuckian Steve Kazee as Raleigh makes the most of it. He is persuasive in rhythm and accent, and completely in character at every moment. He communicates Raleigh's intelligence, humor, decency, dreams, and physical passion for May; his discomfort in his situation is almost painful. You never catch him ''acting"; it's a pitch-perfect performance.

Victor Maog's direction is competent traffic control as people move on and off the porch of designer Regina Garcia's simple country house. But Maog isn't able to create momentum because of the problems of the other performers. As Raleigh's battle-ax mother, Susanne Marley has trouble getting her tongue around her lines, and even remembering them. Kathy Lee Hart as May's mother begins uncertainly but settles into her role, suffusing the cliches with personal warmth. Eliza Baldi is too modern in looks and manner for May and often pushes the character into an unpleasant, self-centered petulance. You can catch her acting all the time.

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