by Deirdre Donovan
Letts’ Man From Nebraska is the opposite of a feel-good theater
experience. But any theatergoer who misses the current mounting of Letts’ 2003
play at Second Stage Theatre, deftly directed by David Cromer, will be the
play is in the vein of many other Letts’ works (think August Osage
County) that presents a person undergoing a spiritual and moral crisis and
pondering life’s big questions. Dually set in the outskirts of Lincoln,
Nebraska, and in London, England, it echoes early on the religious sentiments
found in the lines from Robert Browning’s poem that note:” God’s in His
heaven—All's right with the world!” In fact, we first meet middle-aged Ken Carpenter
and his wife Nancy driving to church, exchanging small talk that smacks of the Midwest.
O’Toole, Reed Birney photos by Joan Marcus
scene immediately seques into the couple worshipping with the congregation at
their Baptist church, singing a traditional hymn together and then listening to
the Reverend Todd preach a sermon about Christian Growth. Things get more
complicated, however, when the Carpenters later visit Ken’s 81year-old mom Carrie,
who’s suffering from dementia, and lives in a nursing home. Although the veneer
of piety and stoicism is still projected by the couple there, once the
Carpenters return home and retire to bed, the picture drastically changes. Ken
will suffer insomnia that night and have an emotional breakdown at the bathroom
sink, weepily confessing to his wife that he “doesn’t believe in God.”
Distressed and bewildered by his confession, Nancy desperately reaches out to
Reverend Todd, who soon makes a house call. During a heart-to-heart with Ken,
the Reverend recommends that he get away to a place that might help him regain
his emotional stability and faith. Ken decides on London, where he has a series
of adventures that are the reverse of his life in Nebraska. There’s his sexual
dalliance with a divorcee who’s into sado-masochism, chats with the feisty
bartender at the Sheraton Hotel where he’s staying, and a foray into the
Bohemian art world when he meets the bartender’s flat-mate who’s a sculptor—and
a kind of savior-on-the-spot for Ken when he introduces Ken to the miraculous
and healing powers of art. To tell any more here would be spoiling it for
future visitors to the show. But don’t expect that traditional
the script is sterling, what makes it soar is the acting. Reed Birney doesn’t
disappoint in his depiction of the spiritually-bereft character Ken. Birney,
who walked away with a Tony statuette last season for his portrayal of Erik
Blake in The Humans, proves that he is no flash in the pan. He really
peels the onion of his character Ken right down to his Midwestern quirkiness.
In the supporting roles, Annette O’Toole is convincing as his loyal wife Nancy,
a modern-day Penelope who must hold her own moral ground even as she ponders
Ken’s. Heidi Armbruster, as the divorcee Pat Monday who’s into
sado-masochistic sex, is rightly wacky as the femme fatale.
Mensah, Max Gordon Moore, Reed Birney
Mensah, as the poetry-loving bartender, projects both toughness and tenderness
as the action unfolds. And William Ragsdale, as the sincere Reverend Todd,
manages to keep the idea of faith before us without turning it into a cliché.
No weak links in the rest of the cast either.
makes this play exceptional is its refusal to supply any facile answers to the
protagonist’s dilemma. In fact, Letts allows each character to speak his mind,
be challenged by the existing social mores and attitudes, and make serious
personal choices that impact upon themselves and others. Moreover, Letts
presents Ken’s Dark Night of the Soul in a deeply human context and, with his
theatrical alchemy, turns it into a deeply satisfying story that we can
identify with. No, you won’t get the happily-ever-after ending. But you may
well leave the performance with a different perspective on life, death, and,
most importantly, love
top of this the creative team are able. Takeshi Kata’s no-frills set is
spot-on for the Midwest look both indoors and out. But Kata really scores when
it comes to the stage’s dominant prop, a nearly nude female sculpture that’s
dramatically undraped at the play’s midpoint. Then there’s Keith Parham’s
protean lighting, which ranges from loud flashes of strobe-light to much
subtler effects. Daniel Kluger’s original music and sound design is an
eclectic sampling of traditional hymns, rock music, and a splash of muzak.
When it comes to fabrics, Sarah Laux’s costumes suit the clothing to the
character, and vice versa.
2004 Pulitzer Prize finalist, Man From Nebraska doesn’t deliver any
belly laughs. However, Letts miraculously plucks planetary unitary from one
man's spiritual discord.
play is a good tonic for the soul—and a perfect way to reacquaint yourself with
Second Stage Theatre (at the Tony Kiser Theatre), 305 West 43rd.
tickets, phone 212-246-4422 or visit www.2ST.com.
Time: 2 hours; 5 minutes, with one intermission.