By: Paulanne Simmons
In Tracy Letts’ quiet but luminous Man from Nebraska, Reed plays Ken Carpenter, an unassuming family man who wakes up one night and discovers he’s lost his faith in God. Neither his wife, Nancy (Annette O’Toole), nor his married daughter, Ashley (Annika Boras), can help him. But the young Reverend Todd (William Ragsdale) suggests he may need a change of atmosphere and time away from his wife. So Ken decides to return to London, where he was stationed while he was in the service.
In London, Ken experiences a series of temptations similar to those of St. Anthony, the 3rd Century Egyptian monk who renounced all worldly goods and went off into the Arabian Desert to live the life of a hermit.
On the plane, Ken meets a very available American business woman. Pat Monday (Heidi Armbruster), who offers exciting sex complete with handcuffs. Tamyra (the feisty Nana Mensah), the hotel bartender he befriends, provides the oblivion of drugs. Her sculptor flat mate, Harry Brown (Max Gordon Moore), seduces with the satisfaction of creating art.
For a while Ken seems lost. When Ashley calls, he tells her he has no idea when he will be coming home. Under David Cromer’s thoughtful direction each of the many scenes in the play becomes one more step in Ken’s journey toward heaven or hell. The path is relentless, from Ken and Nancy’s routine-laden life, through Ken’s crisis in their bathroom, to his enlightenment in London. And set designer Takeshi Kata’s ever-present night sky overhead never lets us forget the spiritual nature of his journey,
But unlike St. Anthony, Ken has a wife who is back home grieving. And she too has her temptation, in the form of the raunchy septuagenarian, Reverend Todd’s father, Bud (Tom Bloom), who watches movies with Nancy and makes his moves.
Ken also has one daughter who is drifting away from the family and another who thinks he no longer merits news of his grandchild. And he has a mother in a nursing home (Kathleen Peirce). These facts considerably reduce his options.
Like so many plays about mid-life wandering, Man from Nebraska only succeeds when the man in question, in the end, makes the decision we can approve or at least live with. But if Letts’ play moves us despite the well-worn path it travels, that’s because it has three major assets: an excellent cast headed by the incomparable Birney, Cromer’s skillful direction backed by a terrific creative team, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright’s ability to create totally believable and sympathetic characters who never amaze but always surprise us.
Man from Nebraska ****
Second Stage Theater at the Tony Kiser Theatre:
305 West 43 Street
Through March 26, 2017
Photography: Joan Marcus
RUNNING TIME: 2 hours and 5 minutes including one intermission