Finding a Home in Nebraska | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Finding a Home in Nebraska 

Redtwist Theatre stages Tracy Letts's play about a grandfather taking off to find himself.

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Man From Nebraska

Man From Nebraska

Andrew Jessop

Man From Nebraska Redtwist Theatre

The key word in the title Man From Nebraska is "from." Tracy Letts—whose next play after this one was his 2008 Pulitzer winner, August: Osage County—makes sure we know that for most of his life Ken Carpenter has been a man in Nebraska. He runs an insurance office in the state capital, Lincoln. He and his wife, Nancy, have raised two daughters and become grandparents there. Before going to sleep, he kneels beside the conjugal bed to pray. A series of six brief scenes at the start of the play show Ken and Nancy driving to church on a Sunday morning, eating Salisbury steak at the local Country Buffet-style cafeteria, and visiting Ken's mom at the nursing center before heading back home to watch some TV. Spiritually as well as physically, Ken seems to be about as in Nebraska as he can get.

But the seventh scene has him up in the middle of the night, hanging on to the bathroom sink, and sobbing and shaking—as the stage direction puts it—"insuppressibly." When Nancy insists that he tell her what's wrong, he replies, "I don't believe in God." Ken being a devout Baptist, that's a crisis profound enough to make him question his entire sense of self. He decides to go off alone and think things over. He flies to London, where he was stationed about 40 years earlier, when he was in the air force. Home for Ken is suddenly a place he's from.

Currently receiving a modest but effective staging at Redtwist Theatre, Man From Nebraska is weirdly reminiscent of David Mamet's 1982 urban horror story, Edmond. In fact, I wondered as I watched it whether Letts's play wasn't intended as a kind of backhanded homage to Edmond, perverse in its antipodal sweetness.

The two have a bunch of structural and expressive elements in common, but the main resemblance is that both are about white, middle-class, American guys—avatars of the status quo—who, shaken loose from their familiar lives, venture into unknown territory and are transformed. Mamet's thirtysomething Edmond comes home from a visit to a fortune-teller and declares to his wife that he's had enough, the marriage is over. He then heads for the street where he meets multiple variations on the theme of hustler, learns the law of the jungle, and practices it with unusual ferocity. He enters hell and finds an odd equanimity there.

Ken seems like a mere tourist by comparison. Sure, he has a dalliance with a businesswoman who's turned on by his midwestern reticence. He also drops something psychotropic and goes to a disco. But none of that really signifies. Ken's one true act of rebellion is studying sculpture with Harry Brown, the boho flatmate of a bartender he's befriended. The moment when Ken gets a look at a life-size nude Harry's been working on and breaks down—weeping, once again, insuppressibly—is a declaration of all that hasn't happened, hasn't been done, and just plain hasn't been in Ken's life.

His decision to take up a handful of clay on that account is as violent a gesture in its way as anything in Edmond. Still, Letts has a much gentler soul than Mamet. He doesn't permit this self-discovery to turn Ken selfish, much less brutal. Man From Nebraska turns out to be a homily about love—both as an act of will and a form of endurance.

Chuck Spencer gives Ken a gravity that's on the one hand entirely in keeping with the mission he's on and, on the other, a great stepping-off point for the comic incongruity of a teetotaling Baptist investigating the pleasures of the flesh. Spencer manages to make the character amusing without sacrificing his integrity. Jan Ellen Graves has a similar challenge as Nancy: she has to hold on tight to her mature vision of marriage as a loving negotiation while letting us see some of Nancy's what-the-fuck anger at Ken for wrecking what was supposed to be a smooth slide into senescence. She only manages the first part; there's no discernible seething in her performance, though Letts supplies several opportunities for it. That's a problem not only for our understanding of Nancy, but for how we take her ultimate response to Ken and therefore the play.

The rest of the company is no more nor less than solid. There's isn't any boundary pushing going on in Andrew Jessop's staging, but the warmth the cast establishes in spite of an inconveniently laid-out space makes this production of Letts's intelligently tender piece of work worth seeing.

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