Tracy Letts’ kind and gentle play, “Man From Nebraska,” follows a nondescript Midwesterner who has a mid-life crisis of faith and goes to London to look for his absent God. Played by the invaluable Reed Birney with the same gentle kindness, this man becomes our Everyman. As directed by David Cromer, the unseeing and unfeeling world he surveys presents a huge challenge for any god-fearing man.
Under Cromer’s suggestive direction, the life of Ken Carpenter (Birney) teeters on some existential ledge between darkness and darker darkness. Takeshi Kata’s set contributes additional shadows with its blanketed walls and out-of-reach set pieces, artfully lighted in Stygian gloom by Keith Parham. Banks of clouds float overhead, but no one pays them any mind.
Contributing to this profound sense of darkness is the empty silence that permeates Ken’s world. (Kudos to sound designer Daniel Kluger for the background of expressive hush.) He and his equally nondescript wife, Nancy (Annette O’Toole, the essence of wifely virtue), drive to church in near-silence. After raising their voices in song during the service, they once again lapse into silence during their Sunday meal.
Bedtime is an extension of the silent rituals that define their lives. Until, one dark night, Ken takes himself to the bathroom, weeping and gasping to Nancy that he has lost his faith — in God, in religion, in anything. “I don’t know what I believe in,” he cries. “It doesn’t matter.” With his gift for finding the right word, the perfect word, Letts speaks a spare language, but one full of breathtaking poignancy.
Reverend Todd (William Ragsdale, appropriately unctuous) recognizes a breakdown when he sees one, and urges Ken to take a vacation and seek his God outside of Nebraska. Ken chooses London, and being a sweet guy, has no trouble making friends of strangers. He meets one attractive woman, Pat Monday (perfectly cast Heidi Armbruster), on the plane. She appears again in a later scene, making an unsuccessful attempt to get a sexual rise out of Ken.
The next woman to fall for his unassuming Midwestern charm is Tamyra (Nana Mensah, who is quite wonderful), the bartender at his hotel. Being something of a free spirit, Tamyra invites Ken home to meet her flat mate, Harry Brown (Max Gordon Moore) a sculptor who is working on a gigantic nude representation of Tamyra. Before you know it, they have adopted Ken and urge him to explore his own artistic inclinations by sculpting a very small, very modest, very Ken-like bust of Tamyra.
Throughout these adventures, Ken keeps himself open to new experiences while staying faithful to his wife, his Baptist upbringing, and his Midwestern values. Birney is marvelous to watch as this decent man struggles to find his moral footing in a strange new landscape. Laughing at Ken’s innocence is not an option, because Birney treats that innocence with respect. And unlike the narratives in morally instructive fairy tales, Ken isn’t forced to suffer for his education. In fact, people quite admire him for his honesty, his sincerity, and his decency, qualities that come to Birney as naturally as breath.
During his spiritual crisis, Ken worried because he hadn’t earned his faith. But by the end of his existential journey, he has not only earned his faith, he’s also earned ours.