South Coast Repertory's West Coast premiere of Tracy Letts' play Man From Nebraska opened last weekend for an all-too-short two-week run that, with its painfully earned insights and fascinating film aesthetic, promises to knock some introspective, existential sense into OC audiences. Directed by the prolific William Friedkin (award-winning director of The Exorcist and The French Connection, among many other projects), Man From Nebraska is a bluntly bleak though verging-on-hopeful look at a man facing a spiritual crisis. Ken (played by Brian Kerwin) sets out on a journey from middle America to London that ends up sifting all the empty, extraneous junk out of his everyday life, leaving behind hard, sedimented truths he can confidently hang his hat on.
Friedkin imports some effective devices into the theater from his film work, particularly the idea of controlling the audience's visual focus (the play is staged in a way that places a physical frame around each scene, condensing the playing field in a powerfully filmic way, thanks to set designer Christopher Barreca and lighting designer Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz) as well as utilizing a highly integrated soundtrack (courtesy of sound designer Drew Dalzell) and combining it with dense theatrical silences la Harold Pinter to come up with an innovatively hybrid format for live performance. But let's face it: Friedkin knows how to pick his plays, and his show would have been nothing without Letts' psychologically penetrating source material.
The play opens on husband and wife Ken and Nancy Carpenter's routinely silent drive to church (we get the sense they could drive it blindfolded), followed by lunch at their local Lincoln, Nebraska, cafeteria. It's on this ride to church that Nancy breaks the banal silence, unwittingly sparking the flame that will burn down her husband's resolve to continue with his unexamined life. Nancy (Kathy Baker) absently scans the empty road from the passenger seat of their luxury sedan until she sees that a familiar landmark is being excavated. Looking on blankly, she says, "They're finally going to tear down that ugly house." That's right, Nancy, and "they're" tearing your respectable insurance actuary husband Ken's blind assumptions about his life right down with it.
That same night, after their daily dose of bad television and bedtime pseudo-affection (a quick closed-mouth kiss), Ken has an overpowering spiritual crisis that leaves him without a faith in God. During a totally believable anxiety attack, he suddenly has questions where he thought he had answers and everything starts to crumble around him—including his daughter Ashley's (Susannah Schulman) respect for him and his relationship with his seemingly unshakable wife (who keeps asking if he is feeling all right—because, heavens, how else could a person question his faith in God?). Ken sets out to explore these newfound questions on a pastor-recommended trip to London. Befriending his Leicester Square hotel's bartender Tamyra (Susan Dalian), Ken is eventually invited into countercultural London, where he finds comfort in the mysteries behind his questions.
Man From Nebraska comes off so brilliantly because its powerhouse script feels so universal—it's an existential journey myth re-enacted and refreshed. But there are other elements—the script's lyrical wit and the ensemble's artful and sincere handling of it—that infuse the play and make SCR's newest offering a worthwhile examination of what it means to demand something better from life.
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MAN FROM NEBRASKA AT SOUTH COAST REPERTORY, 655 TOWN CENTER DR., COSTA MESA, (714) 708-5555. TUES.-FRI., 7:45 P.M.; SAT.-SUN., 2 & 7:45 P.M. THROUGH APRIL 2. $28-$58.