By Karen Isaacs
Reed Barney and Annette O’Toole are giving a master class in acting at Second Stage in Tracy Lett’s play Man from Nebraska.
Birney plays Ken, a middle-aged insurance agent whose life has been conventional to say the least. His life is centered around his wife, his business and the Baptist church. He has seldom gone beyond Nebraska and in his long married life, he and his wife have rarely been apart.
The Sunday routine is driving to church, church, lunch and visiting his mother in a nursing home. But that evening something happens. He wakes up and runs to the bathroom where he breaks out in sobs. His wife is terrified — is he having a heart attack? A stroke? Is it OK?
The problem he says is that he no longer believes in God. He isn’t sure when and where his faith left him, but it has. His wife cannot understand it at all, particularly when he says he no longer understands the stars.
Ken struggles to make sense of his feelings. Finally their minister suggests he takes some books and go way by himself; perhaps the separateness and the time to relax will help him regain his faith.
He takes the pastor up on the suggestion but carries it much farther than the pastor expected. Ken goes to London where he had been stationed in the Air Force. And he stays much longer than the week or so the pastor anticipated.
Act two switches between Ken’s experiences in London and his wife at home. Her daughter offers to move in with her or have her stay with the family. But Nancy stays alone almost isolating herself until the pastor again urges her to get out.
She is at loss — she expected to be a wife forever, and that she and her husband would be in lock step until death did them part. Now she is alone and confused.
Ken, meanwhile, seems almost equally lost. But slowly his Midwest reserve begins to melt. He chats up the bartender in the hotel bar; he begins drinking salty dogs (it’s not clear if he never drank or hasn’t in a long while). He has an encounter with an American businesswoman who he had met on the plane but it goes nowhere for reasons you should discover in the play. But when the bartender tells him she has only been listening to him because he tips well and that she is fed up with his problems, he follows her. He is soon in her flat that she shares with her boyfriend, a sculptor.
As his stay extends — to more than six weeks, he may not spend a lot of time thinking about his faith but he is opening his mind to new ideas. Meanwhile, his daughter is extremely angry with him, and the pastor’s father tries to court Nancy.
He returns home when he learns of his mother’s death. He is changed in ways we don’t really know, but his thinking is totally different. When his daughter says that her husband says that he (Ken) will go to Hell, Ken replies that then the husband is a fool.
The ending is tension filled and nearly heartbreaking. But I won’t spoil the last minutes.
This is a play where more is said by silence and expressions than by words. These Midwesterners aren’t talkative people and what they do say is often trivial. Yet we are given a total picture of this man and his life and his wife’s as well. Yet the silence doesn’t become pretentious as Pinter sometimes does. It seems natural for these characters.
Lett has shown us a world and lives that may not be our own, but that we know well. These are the people who do what is expected, follow the rules and live the lives they are expected to live. But what happens if they begin to question those lives and those rules? What if they begin to wonder as in the Peggy Lee song, “is that all there is?”
Lett doesn’t offer easy answers and we don’t know what actually Ken has discovered. His reserve remains intact. But we know his life and his wife’s will be different — perhaps more open, more questioning or more adventuresome.
David Cromer has directed this play with a deft hand; he never over emphasizes what is going on; he lets his actors present this world to us. The first act has numerous short scenes – often mostly silence – and the changes in props are handled invisibly. Although I understood why Cromer did, it was still disconcerting when late in the play, the stage crew was very visible changing the set and props.
The scenic design by Takeshi Kata works well – including the cloud like structure that hangs in the back and with lighting of Keith Parham can be many things.
But what makes this play so moving is the performances of the entire cast, but particularly Reed Birney and Annette O’Toole. They don’t have to say a word to let us into their emotions. Neither strikes a false note. I just sat and marveled at their expertise.
The rest of the cast rises to the bar set by these two. From Annika Boras as their judgmental daughter to William Ragsdale as Parson Todd to Nana Mensah as the bartender and Max Gordon Moore has her boyfriend and the others – all are excellent.
Man from Nebraska is an unsettling play but also a very touching one. Please make an effort to see the extraordinary performances.
It is at 2nd Stage Theatre, 305 W. 43rd Street through March 26. Tickets are available at 2nd Stage.