Man From Nebraska

by Brooke Pierce

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Thursday February 23, 2017

Man From Nebraska

In his newest play, "Man From Nebraska," playwright Tracy Letts ("August: Osage County," "Superior Donuts") explores a middle-aged Midwestern man's crisis of faith, which takes him across the Atlantic to London as he tries to find himself, or God, or anything that will relieve his sense of confusion.

In an unhurried opening sequence where dialogue is scarce, we are submerged into a day in the life of Ken Carpenter (Reed Birney, excellent as always) and his wife Nancy (Annette O'Toole): a nearly wordless drive in the car, singing a hymn at their Baptist church, lunch at a local buffet, a visit to Ken's mom (Kathleen Peirce) in the nursing home, and then a silent prayer before getting into bed.

To the observer this may look like a pretty rote, dull existence, so it's not entirely surprising when Ken suddenly leaps from bed and buries his face in a towel to quiet his uncontrolled sobbing. In the midst of this hysterical panic attack, he finally admits to his alarmed wife that he doesn't believe in God anymore. Nancy seems like a steady, rational woman -- she wants to understand what is happening to him, but even he can't articulate it.

Unfortunately, Ken, who has spent most of his life in Lincoln, Nebraska, rarely stepping out socially or geographically from what he's used to, is surrounded by people with little capacity to understand what he might be going through. His wife is concerned, but clings to a hope that it's a phase. His older daughter Ashley (Annika Boras) can't even begin to empathize; the younger daughter is away at college, and one suspects she may never come back.

While Ken's pastor Reverend Todd (William Ragsdale) isn't prepared to entertain the possibility that it may be a true loss of faith, he at least has the sense to recommend that Ken go on vacation alone to work on himself. Ken chooses London, where he was stationed in the Air Force some 40 years earlier.

Takeshi Kata's wonderful set has each set piece, from pews to sofa to bed, placed on the wide stage, brought into action at the appropriate moment by Keith Parham's lighting design. This almost mirrors the somewhat haphazard feel of the play as it meanders along on Ken's journey.

On the plane, he meets a rather lonely divorcee traveling on business, who he has an almost-fling with. More meaningful is his relationship with Tamyra (Nana Mensah), the bartender at his hotel, who lends an ear and introduces the formerly non-drinking Ken to the salty dog.

But weeks go by, with little changing in Ken's mood, while he fails to call his wife and his daughter grows angry at her father for abandoning his family. Tamyra, too, loses patience indulging Ken's stories and problems, and snaps. It's when she gives him a reality check by introducing him to HER life -- full of money woes, crummy living quarters, music, dancing, heady discussions, humor, and art -- that he starts to find what he's been missing.

Letts' play, under the fluid direction of David Cromer, is ultimately not about a religious crisis, or even a mid-life crisis. Perhaps Ken has lost faith in the routine, in a life where everything including his religion smells of mundane materialism, but most of all he seems bothered that life has just happened to him. He wants to live deliberately, to choose who he's with and where he goes and what he does.

"Man From Nebraska" is not Tracy Letts' most thought-provoking or exciting play, and there have been better dramas about confused protagonists trying to figure things out for themselves. But it may particularly speak to anyone who comes from a background where certainty and conformity were the rule, and self-reflection and self-discovery were discouraged. And for those who didn't, it may inspire some compassion, understanding, and hope.

"Man From Nebraska" runs through March 26 at the Second Stage's Tony Kiser Theatre, 305 West 43rd Street, NYC. For information or tickets, call 212-246-4422 or visit

Brooke Pierce is a freelance writer and playwright in New York City. Her plays have received staged readings at the American Theatre of Actors, the Ensemble Studio Theatre, and Stage One Theater. Brooke is a member of the Drama Desk and the Dramatists Guild.