“Man From Nebraska,” a play by Chicago-based writer and actor Tracy Letts, succeeds quite well at expressing the empty feelings of a man experiencing a crisis of faith, but is far less successful at finding drama or meaning — or just raw, abstract emotional power — in his search to fill this emptiness. And while the cinematic flair of William Friedkin, who directs the play’s West Coast debut at South Coast Rep, makes the most of the writing’s evocative languorousness, the protagonist’s spiritual cravings still come across as little more than a petty indulgence.
In the brief scenes that open the play, Ken Carpenter (Brian Kerwin) and his wife, Nancy (Kathy Baker), go about their lives. They drive, go to church, eat, visit Ken’s invalid mother (Jane A. Johnston), watch TV and go to bed. The silences are vast, the dialogue spare: “How’s your steak?” Nancy asks at the cafeteria. “Good,” Ken responds. “Yours?”
Friedkin and set designer Christopher Barreca give these hyper-realistic scenes a filmic texture, as rolling walls shift to arrange different viewing rectangles, framing the scenes almost as if we were watching them on a movie screen. Together with the near-noirish lighting of Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz, the slice-of-life visuals combine with the actors’ stillness and ripe silence for haunting, yearning, highly emotional impact. We wait for something to happen, and it does.
“I don’t believe in God,” Ken finally says. The expression is sudden, although the revelation itself may have been long in coming. He blurts this out in the middle of the night, after he awakens Nancy with his crying from the bathroom.
The concept here is that this revelation represents a life-shattering moment for Ken and Nancy, and even for their daughter Ashley (Susannah Schulman), who works with her father at his insurance business. Faith holds their lives together, and, for the women especially, Ken’s doubts suggest that he has called into question all of his commitments to family, too.
The local pastor, Rev. Todd (Ben Livingston), suggests that Ken just needs a break and proposes he take a separate vacation. Ken chooses London, where he’d once been stationed in the Air Force. He flirts with having an affair — with a divorcee into bondage (Laura Niemi) — but he’s too moral, or scared or both. He finds greater satisfaction once he connects with a London bartender, Tamyra (Susan Dalian), and her sculptor flatmate Harry (Julian Stone), whose beautiful artwork causes Ken to break out in tears once again.
Letts, whose previous plays “Bug” and “Killer Joe” are known for their violence, is walking not just one but many fine lines in “Man From Nebraska.” The play needs to be specific to Ken, and yet also universal; this is, in essence, everyone’s search for meaning. Letts wants to tell a story but seeks to avoid too traditional an arc; “You want a narrative,” Tamyra half asks/half tells Ken when he confesses he never understood reading poetry. Playwright seeks a closely observed realism, but with dashes of style and even a touch of comic bite; when the sculptor begins to teach Ken about art, he guides the Midwesterner on how to exaggerate reality just a bit — yet another metaphor for what Letts is trying to do.
Letts, in essence, comments on his play while he’s writing it, even suggesting that the abstractions of poetry and sculpture have an easier time dealing with life’s hardest questions than straightforward drama.
In a strange way, it’s a convincing case. “Man From Nebraska” never manages to recover the focused power of its early scenes. It feels vague, thematic in a prosaic sense, even dull, and one begins to wonder whether this play was a finalist for the Pulitzer in 2004 more for its philosophical ambition — and poetic stage directions — than for the full success of its dramatic execution.
The blunted emotions could be partially the production’s fault, even though it’s highly polished and the acting is quite fine. But perhaps Friedkin’s use of the visual language of film grounds this play too much in realism, reducing it to snapshots rather than expanding it into a collage. Or maybe the design work just doesn’t ever manage to find the right telling, expressive details.
Whether it’s the play or the production, once we’re past the opening sequence, there are too few moments when images or acting or dialogue feel like they reflect the deeper internal life that so entices us into its world at the start.