Man From Nebraska


We begin by spending a day in the life of Ken (Reed Birney) and Nancy (Annette O'Toole), a man and woman from Nebraska. They drive, in silence, to church. They sit, in silence, in church. They have dinner, in silence. They visit Ken's ailing mother, Cammie (Kathleen Peirce), and they only speak to her, not to each other. At home, they watch TV in silence. The silences aren't awkward; they are just what (sometimes) happens after decades of marriage. But something is stirring in Ken's soul.

Ken and Nancy break the silence in the middle of the night when Ken rushes to the bathroom, puts a towel over this face and begins to cry. Nancy enters the bathroom and tries to help, but Ken won't let her. (O'Toole is achingly effective in this scene; Nancy is Ken's wife, and it's her job to help. Why won't he let her help?) He finally relents, declaring he doesn't believe in God.

Talking about the genesis of his 2003 play in a post-show discussion, Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Tracy Letts (August: Osage County) asked, can you go your whole life without asking the big questions? Man from Nebraska, directed with great attention to detail by David Cromer, posits what happens to the titular Everyman when, after years of just going along to get along, he finally asks.

In a telling exchange, Ken's reverend (William Ragsdale) asks, "You've been feeling low?" Ken replies, "I haven't been feeling anything. And so, with his crisis of faith named, Ken sets off to figure out who he is and what life means. He jets off to London, leaving his wife at home (much to the chagrin of their oldest daughter, Ashley (Annika Boras)). Across the pond his meets a black woman, Tamyra (Nana Mensah) and her flatmate, Harry (Max Gordon Moore), who help Ken see life differently.

Tony winner Birney (The Humans, Casa Valentina) gives a layered exploration of the complexities of being a regular guy who's just not sure what happened to his life, how he got here. You can see all the questions racing through Ken's mind, but let's not forget the wife he abandoned so that he might go on his journey.

O'Toole (A Mighty Wind, Welcome Home Dean Charbonneau) gives a quiet, understated performance as the tossed-aside wife. Though not fully drawn on the page, O'Toole shows that Nancy is just as complicated as Ken. She's his wife. They've made this life, predicated on certain things, things they thought they figured out years ago. She is just as plagued by this crisis as her husband. With no offense meant to Letts (or Birney), in this day and age, the more interesting story might be the one about the woman from Nebraska.

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