Ken Carpenter doesn’t look like a dramatic lead. Soft-spoken, bespectacled, a slight humble stoop in the shoulders, the 57-year-old’s a successful insurance salesman in Lincoln, Nebraska. He’s been with one woman for the past 40 years, and on his own just once in the past 20. In the first few scenes of Tracy Letts’s Man From Nebraska, Ken and wife Nancy have such ingrained routines that lengthy pauses engulf the few words they utter. They’ve lived this way for decades and will, they’re certain, forevermore. The opening scenes are so dull — deliberately — that neither we nor Ken see it coming.
Was it sudden, triggered by his mother’s terminal illness, or building up for years? Ken doesn’t say. But one night the gravest anxiety attack of all throws him to the floor: “I don’t think…there’s a God,” he tells a stunned Nancy. Asked what he believes in, Ken can only reply, “I don’t know.”
Though Ken has spasms, the attack isn’t physical. Nor is it the sexual yearning of a midlifer bemoaning lost youth. It wasn’t even a “decision,” he says. Flashes came on him. Now his head is “clear” and he “can’t understand the stars.” He hasn’t just tumbled outside the box. The box has disappeared.
On the advice of his preacher, Ken takes his crisis of faith to England, where he joins up with Tamyra and Harry, artists living, most likely, a permanent economic crisis in London’s East End. (“I don’t believe in God,” he says. “Join the club,” says Tamyra.) A kind of cultural exchange takes place: Ken, the emotionally blank have-everything (else), learns from the creative have-nothings.
Man From Nebraska joins a long line of lost-mooring dramas — David Mamet’s Edmond among them. What separates it from most: Ken really falls hard, his whole existence gouged of meaning; and the playwright pens a subplot you could call Woman From Nebraska, since Letts includes wife Nancy’s crisis. She too plunges like Icarus, and compared to Ken, her options are less than zilch.
Letts adds drama by creating leads barely able to articulate their pain (they’re most eloquent when rendered speechless). For Cygnet Theatre, Brian Redfern’s minimal set creates visual silences. Enhanced by Eric Lotze’s excellent lighting, the stage can be dead blank or brimming with stars. George Ye’s sounds and Jason Connors's music, combined with Jessica John’s detailed costumes, demarcate two worlds: steel guitars and cotton prints for Nebraska; scat and jazz, florid reds and Bo-hunk mufti for England.
The supporting cast brims with sharp cameos, among them: Sandra Ellis-Troy’s Cammie, the mother on life-support reduced to begging for food; Jeffrey Jones and Monique Gaffney as the tweaking Brit artistes; Amanda Sitton as purse-lipped daughter Ashley; and Linda Libby, a hoot as a pleasure-loving, modern Wife of Bath.
Michael Rich Sears takes a while to empty Ken convincingly. Gestures indicate but feel unconnected to actual hurt. Once inside, though, Sears expresses how it feels to lose one’s sense of permanence.
As Nancy, an almost wordless Robin Christ fights that loss harder in each new scene. She struggles to keep her world from breaking and herself from breaking down.
Melissa’s a “Catholic missionary” — she tries to convert them — from the Evangelical Church of the Holy Spirit Alliance Church. She goes door-to-door in Savannah, Georgia, dropping off booklets and praying for lost souls. Melissa hits pay-dirt with Margaret, a lapsing Catholic who’s so cranky she “slams the door on Girl Scouts selling dry little cookies for seven-fifty.”
Melissa’s chipper proselytizing offends Margaret a hundredfold, in part because Melissa’s religion uses the word “church” twice in its name. Margaret’s quick to shoo Melissa away. You have to, she says, otherwise missionaries like her keep coming back. They’re like…cats.”
Obviously Melissa’s got her hands full and knows it: her cell phone plays the theme from Mission Impossible.
Evan Smith’s Savannah Disputation creates the illusion of one. Melissa squares off with Margaret, her sister Mary, and Father Murphy, their priest. The play takes potshots at religious rigidities. Some strike home (the woman next to me uttered several knowing “mmm-hmms”). But the playwright takes his theme and characters only so far: all four face Man From Nebraska–sized crises. But Smith keeps the stakes comparatively small. He’d much rather entertain than enlighten or, perish the thought, offend. The 90-minute play is funny throughout. But it concludes with such a sweet sitcom gift wrap that the characters return to their one-note ways with most scratches healed by the curtain.
The Old Globe cast received a standing ovation on opening night and deserved one. Throughout Nancy Robinette (beatific Mary), Mikel Sarah Lambert (feisty Margaret), James Sutorious (pensive Father Murphy), and Kimberly Parker Green (perky Melissa) tried to make a joke-driven play character-driven. Their spiky interplay made the ride enjoyable — at least while the ride lasted.
Deb O built her cluttered set on a familiar expression. Piles and piles of Bibles hold up the stage: the foursome literally testifies on stacks of Bibles.
Man From Nebraska by Tracy Letts
Cygnet Theatre, 4040 Twiggs Street, Old Town
Directed by Francis Gercke; cast: Robin Christ, John DeCarlo, Sandra Ellis-Troy, Monique Gaffney, Jeffrey Jones, Linda Libby, Jack Missett, Michael Rich Sears, Amanda Sitton; scenic design, Brian Redfern; costumes, Jessica John; lighting, Eric Lotze; sound, George Ye; composer, Jason Connors
Playing through November 1; Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Sunday at 7:00 p.m. 619-337-1525.
The Savannah Disputation by Evan Smith
Old Globe Theatre, Simon Edison Centre for the Performing Arts, Balboa Park
Directed by Kim Rubinstein; cast: Nancy Robinette, Mikel Sarah Lambert, James Sutorius, Kimberly Parker Green; scenic design, Deb O; costumes, Judith Dolan; lighting, Alan Burrett; sound, Paul Peterson
Playing through November 1; Sunday, Tuesday, and Wednesday at 7:00 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-234-5623.