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Chicago by John Olson

Man from Nebraska
Redtwist Theatre

Also see John's review of Next to Normal

Man from Nebraska
Michael Sherwin, Jan Ellen Graves and
Chuck Spencer

With the success of Tracy Letts' August: Osage County, a chance to revisit (or visit for the first time), his earlier plays is likely to be much appreciated by theater fans. His adopted home of Chicago, where all five of his full-length plays originated in some fashion or other, has been happy to oblige. Profiles Theatre's production of Killer Joe ran throughout most of 2010 and now we have Redtwist's back-to-back productions of Man from Nebraska and Bug (opening May 27). Man from Nebraska, which, like August and Superior Donuts, originated at Steppenwolf, is probably the least known of the five. Though it was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2004, it's the only one not to have been staged on or Off-Broadway. It has a gentility and sweetness that may surprise those familiar with the caustic wit of August or the pitch-black comedy of Killer Joe.

The titular "Man" is Ken Carpenter (Chuck Spencer), a churchgoing late-middle aged insurance agent from Lincoln, Nebraska, who lives in a trance-like state resulting from the monotony of a life in which a new Outback Steakhouse in the neighborhood is a big deal. Ken has a growing distancing from his family. His nursing-home-bound mother (Marssie Mencotti) suffers from dementia and is unable to communicate more than her rudimentary needs. Ken's conversations with wife Nancy (Jan Ellen Graves) are even less robust. He and Nancy are completely alienated from one of their two daughters, and the other daughter, a religious conservative who works in Ken's business (Julie Dahlinger), is vocally disapproving of most everything about Ken.

Late one night Ken finds himself suddenly stricken with a terrifying crisis of faith. When he confides to Reverend Todd (Michael Sherwin) that he's no longer sure of the existence of God, the pastor suggests Ken take a vacation by himself to sort things out. Ken follows the advice and jets off to London, where he was stationed in the Air Force, leaving Nancy behind in Lincoln. The trip to London, on which he meets a horny female business executive (Jane deLaubenfels) and befriends a hotel bartender (Adrian Snow) and her sculptor flat mate (Andrew Pond), shakes him out of that routine. Where he lands is the concern of the play.

Letts' trademark dry humor is evident, though in small amounts, and he takes a long time to set up the premise. Director Andrew Jessop has the cast approach this setup quietly and leisurely—appropriately enough for the quiet slow-paced lives of the characters—but you long for things to get going nonetheless. After Ken departs for London about three-fourths of the way through the first act, the pace picks up and you see the humanity in Letts' play, which up until then dances on the edge of condescension to its low-keyed rural characters. (And while I've never visited Lincoln, Nebraska, I suspect that as a state capital and seat of a large university that it's probably more sophisticated than Letts makes it out to be.)

Jessop and set designer Stephen Carmody make great use of Redtwist's storefront space, with a playing area in between two seating sections. The walls in the playing area are decorated to represent Ken and Nancy's home while set pieces and Emily Guthrie's props are wheeled in to create more than a dozen settings that shift with cinematic fluidity (Christopher Burpee's lighting contributes much to the illusions as well). I suspect people who've seen this play in a proscenium setting would never have guessed it could be staged with such visual detail in a storefront venue.

Spencer shows us Ken's confusion and fears touchingly, gradually opening up as a character once he leaves his discomfort zone of Lincoln and with more than a little help from alcohol. He wisely takes Ken no farther than Ken would actually go, making the Man's journey wholly credible. Graves shows Nancy to be a rock-solid Christian, firmly grounded in her principles of faith and decency, but smart enough to take her own journey of growth even as she stays home. Sherwin plays the Reverend Todd with a satirical but kind touch that shows a minister who's a bit sheltered but has the best intentions. Mencotti's elderly mother, Cammie, is touchingly spot-on and will convince anyone who's ever known someone in their last stages of life. An alternative look at aging is shown by the minister's father—a jovial and spry 75-year-old in the hands of the very amusing Sam Perry. Snow does a nice job as the cynical hotel barmaid who eventually warms up to Ken and Pond gives the sculptor Harry a great sort of lower-class artistic pomposity. Jane deLaubenfels shows admirable restraint as the loose-moraled businesswoman, avoiding caricature in Letts' flimsiest character; but it seems Dahlinger might have found more to do with Ken's daughter Ashley. Letts shows Ashley to be judgmental and suffering from problems in her own marriage even as she's so harshly critical of the marriage of her parents. Dahlinger is mostly just strident with a character that could be more self-delusionally comical.

As good as this production is, Man from Nebraska is not as entertaining as I expected from Letts, but as a sympathetic look at aging and the need for personal growth at all ages, it makes an important statement. Its heart is in the right place, and if all we knew of Tracy Letts' writing was from Killer Joe and August: Osage County, we might not otherwise have known he has such a big heart.

Man from Nebraska will close Sunday, May 8 at Redtwist Theatre, 1044 W. Bryn Mawr, Chicago. For tickets, visit www.redtwist.org or call 773-728-7529.


Photo: Andrew Jessop

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-- John Olson



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