Midlife crisis looms large in Man from Nebraska, a 2003 play by Pulitzer Prize–winner Tracy Letts (August: Osage County). In a series of early, short scenes, barely punctuated by dialogue, or rather weighted down by silence, Letts delineates the life of the title character, the retired Ken Carpenter—a terrific Reed Birney. His retirement is spent eating at Outback Steakhouse with his wife, Nancy (Annette O’Toole, in an unshowy part that she invests with anguish and bewilderment), attending church together, and visiting his mother, Cammie, in a nursing home, where she suffers from either dementia or Alzheimer’s. They also see their daughter, Ashley, who lives nearby, but rarely his granddaughter, Natalie, who lives farther away.
When Nancy finds Ken crying uncontrollably in the bathroom in the middle of the night, she knows something is wrong, but he can only tell her, “I don’t believe in God.” To a strongly Christian Nancy, this is terrible news. She can only question him: “What does that mean? … What do you believe in?” She tries to get their minister to advise him, but Ken’s crisis is deeper than that. Questioned by his daughter, he tells Ashley: “You didn’t earn your faith.” “How are you supposed to earn it?” she asks. Says he: “I don’t know, experiences.”
Eventually, Ken decides that he needs time away from his family, wife and everything that has constituted his life to that point. Nancy accepts his decision with the expectation that it’s a short separation, and Ken leaves for London; he has fond memories of England, where he served in the Air Force. It’s a pilgrimage to find himself, to go back to some point where he was happy, although his spiritual emptiness goes with him.
Even before he deplanes, Ken meets an attractive passenger named Pat Monday (Heidi Armbruster), who sends out sexual vibrations. He checks into a hotel and visits the bar, where he meets a young black woman named Tamyra (Nana Mensah), who is the bartender. She serves him, and they begin to talk. She lends an ear to him as she might to any customer, but with more earnestness, she eventually tells him, because Americans tip better. As many bartenders do, Tamyra becomes a confidante.
Ken: In church, I look around … I have a secret world in my mind, and if they could see it, they might … I don’t know. Stone me.
Tamyra: Why, is it sexy?
Ken: Sometimes. What it really is … what it really is, is free.
He stays in London for weeks, baffling the family back home, and ultimately straining the bonds between them. His Dickensian adventures include an attempted seduction of Pat that goes seriously wrong, and falling in with Tamyra and her roommate, Harry, a white sculptor (Max Gordon Moore), just as they face eviction. Given that he’s in England, too, there is the inevitable discussion of class issues. (“I doubt very seriously you’d embrace my scenarios for change,” Harry tells him. “All of them conclude with an aesthetically pleasing arrangement of severed heads on pikes”). Ken and Tamyra have arguments about race, oppression, and income levels. Nonetheless, he winds up a regular at their apartment, learning from Harry how to sculpt. Looking at a bust that Ken is working on in clay, Tamyra pointedly notes that it resembles him.
As the weeks of Ken’s absence stretch out, Nancy is courted back in Nebraska by the minister’s father, in an awkward, vaguely cynical and unseemly way that has overtones of male patriarchy—the assumption that she needs a man, whoever it is. Meanwhile, the single-mindedness of born-again Christianity comes under scrutiny. Ashley roundly condemns her father’s absence and refuses to tell him how his grandchildren are doing. And, in a powerful, ambiguous scene, Nancy visits Cammie, who struggles with her breathing.
It’s not clear whether Letts is assailing organized religion, as Shaw did, or particularly fundamentalist Christianity, for its oppression of human feelings and its doctrinaire beliefs. Under David Cromer’s direction, however, the silences and ambiguities in the script reflect the characters’ struggles with moral choices that carry considerable weight. Birney is riveting as he makes one feel the crushing, stultifying outcome of living such a life.
The Second Stage production of Man from Nebraska plays through March 26 at Second Stage (305 W. 43rd St.) Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, and Sunday, and at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; matinees are at 2 p.m. Sunday. For tickets, visit 2st.com.