Theater Review: Man From Nebraska
By Charlene Baldridge
Tracy Letts is a playwright and actor born in the Great Plains in 1965. At 20, he relocated to Chicago where he became associated with the renowned Steppenwolf Theatre. In 2008 his play titled “August: Osage County” copped both the Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize. His most recent play, a comedy titled “Superior Donuts,” premiered at Steppenwolf last year and was recently well-received in New York.
Letts’ plays “Bug” and “Killer Joe” were seen at Cygnet Theatre and Compass Theatre. Now through November 1, an earlier work titled “Man from Nebraska” is being produced in its San Diego premiere by Cygnet at its Old Town Theatre.
Letts writes quirky plays about ordinary people in crisis. They range from the trailer trash in “Killer Joe” to the lowlife folks in “Bug,”” and to the downright nutty extended family in “August: Osage County.”
Premiered at Steppenwolf in 2003 and nominated for a Pulitzer, “Man from Nebraska” concerns a normal, salt-of-the earth church-going couple, Nancy and Ken Carpenter, at midlife. They’ve launched two grown daughters and are grandparents. They live comfortably and routinely, church on Sunday. It’s a no-surprises existence until Ken awakens one night with a great emptiness: He no longer believes that God exists, and he therefore upsets the expected plan for the rest of everyone’s lives, heretofore uncluttered and straight as the road to Lincoln and as predictable as the food at Furr’s Cafeteria.
Having consulted Rev. Todd (John DeCarlo), Ken (Michael Rich Sears) leaves Nancy (Robin Christ) and goes on a trip to London, which he visited long ago as a young, peacetime airman. There he consorts with the round-heeled Pat Monday (Linda Libby) and becomes involved in the lives of Bohemian artist Harry Brown (Jeffrey Jones) and his Anglo-African girlfriend Tamyra (Monique Gaffney), who is the bartender at Ken’s hotel. Ken dabbles in psychedelic drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, sexual abandon, and sculpture lessons, and as his inhibitions loose their grip he encounters his latent sensitivity and ability to communicate.
Nancy lovingly continues her almost daily visits to feed Ken’s mother (Sandra Ellis-Troy) in the nursing home. Daughter Ashley (Amanda Sitton) nags Ken to come home, and Nancy has a different kind of awakening with the pastor’s lusty, yucky 75-year-old dad (Jack Missett).
At the play’s denouement, a quietly emotional yet uncharacteristically passionate scene restores order to the universe, but nothing will ever be as it was before. Letts meanders in leisurely fashion through his characters’ inner landscapes, certainly a brave and unflashy thing to do. If one has patience and doesn’t ask too many times “Are we there yet?” the rewards are great.
Sears is meant to play this role. It is a performance every bit as understated, compassionate, subtle and heartbreaking as Letts’ script and should be seen and savored by every inarticulate midlife male as well as by his wife and his children. Each of the aforementioned actors shines in this material, so excellently directed by Francis Gercke. All are supported by Brian Redfern’s scenic design, which is in turn enhanced by Dominic Abbenante’s projections that allow us to know exactly where we are. Sound designer George Yé and composer Jason Connors have a ball with aural elements, and Eric Lotze’s Nebraska-plains-to-London-psychedelic lighting design is inspired. Jessica John creates costumes, including Libby’s magnificent bustier inspired décolletage.
“Man from Nebraska” continues at 7:30 p.m. Wed.-Thurs.; 8 p.m. Fri.-Sat.; 2 and 7 p.m. Sun. through Nov. 1, $22-$48, Cygnet Theatre Company, 4040 Twiggs St., Old Town San Diego Historic Park, www.cygnettheatre.com or (619) 337-1525.
Charlene Baldridge is a freelance arts writer and member of San Diego Critics Circle.