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On the Brink of 'Nebraska'

By Andrew Haley
'Man From Nebraska'
Now through Dec. 11
Salt Lake Acting Company
(168 W. 500 North)
Tickets cost $23 to $32 and as
low as $13 for students and $18
for people younger than 30.
Call 363-SLAC for more

Ken Carpenter (Joe Cronin) is Tracy Lett’s man from Nebraska in his play of the same name. He is 57, sells insurance and during the entire first act barely utters a word. His wife Nancy, played by Anita Booher in Salt Lake Acting Company’s regional premier of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize finalist, displays the same jotie de vivre as their wood-paneled Zenith TV. Their silence—on which most of the first act is sketched—achieves a strange, dynamic force.

My gosh, one realizes, watching Cronin and Booher mock-drive their late-vintage Buick across the mock Lincoln country side, we must be at the theatre. There are no vast stretches of Middle America sprawling to the horizon, neither cast in the sardonic tones of Alexander Payne’s 2002 “About Schmidt,” nor in the joyous melancholy of David Lynch’s 1999 “The Straight Story,” but both films seem to permeate Lett’s script.

What we have instead is SLAC’s small stage, occupied by two actors, two chairs and various props suspended metonymically behind the stage. The scene in which the Carpenters drive comes after a blackout during which a spotlight appears on a suspended bumper. When they are at home, an enormous Zenith is shot with spotlight in the darkness. While at church, the spotlight falls on a large, suspended cross. SLAC’s staging matches the caginess of Lett’s writing.

The play is broken into short scenes, each prefigured by a blackout during which the relevant prop is lighted. Lett indulges in silence, giving us scenes in which Nancy and Ken utter few, irrelevant phrases. Then, after kneeling on opposite sides of their bed and tucking themselves in with the sexless casualness of siblings, Ken goes off the reservation.

Staggering in a flickering simulacrum of cheap bathroom florescence, Ken begins to moan, then to keen direfully. Nancy soon comes stoically to the door and Ken gulps his sobs, knowing full well that crisis lies beyond the permitted horizon of their bourgeois respectability. When Nancy barges in, demanding if he is sick, has had a stroke, a heart attack or the gamut of permitted physical ailments, he says simply, “I don’t believe in God.”

This crisis of faith cracks the veneer of Ken’s way of life. The man who spent scene two dutifully singing “I give my all to thee, Lord” and scene three silently chewing a six-dollar steak while the elevator remix of the Beatles’ “Can’t Buy Me Love” played over the diner sound system finds at the end of the day that both those songs are true. Ken has given all to God, and for all his furniture, he feels nothing but the cold, existential dread of what suddenly seems like a meaningless existence.

At the advice of his almost cartoonish Baptist preacher (Jason Tatom), Ken goes on vacation. He chooses London, where he spent his disgruntled but happy youth stationed in the Air Force. On the flight over, he sits next to Susan Dolan’s divorced, nymphomaniacal Pat Monday, a Coca-Cola exec who was kicked out of her marriage into a moat of self-loathing. While staying at the Leicester Sheraton, Ken is quickly seduced into his first drink, his first casual sex, his first ecstacy-fueled romp through the East End club circuit and finally his first taste of anti-American, Marxist Bohemia. He pays the overdue rent of Tamyra and Harry, the Sheraton bartender (Anita Holland) and her sculptor flatmate (Tommy Baron) in exchange for lessons in sculpture and class/race-consciousness.

Back home, the staid respectability of Nancy and her firebrand daughter Ashley (JJ Neward) seems suddenly stiff, criticized. Before Ken’s arrival in London, the trappings of Ken’s existence seem antiquated. I thought the play took place in the ‘70s until Harry and Tamyra forced a pill on Ken and dragged him off into post-Bristol club land. The cold, silent stretches of act one, parsed and lean with quiet, have an eerie, almost Brechtian quality. The 30-year-old Buick bumper and Zenith TV feel stripped of meaning, like Benjamin’s skulls, until put in contrast with cosmo jet-set London.

The bounteous back-story—made palpable by the play’s opening quiet—shrivels into the business of the second and third acts. Nancy fends off a suitor. Ashley rants about the family’s imminent demise. Harry recounts his sloughing off of Oxford respectability and his anti-imperial self-exile in the London working class. But all the ruckus makes less sound than Cronin’s expert grunts and nods of barely sustained approval.

As a voyage story, the play obviously ends with Ken’s coming home. The play’s last scene is brief. Ken confronts his daughter gently, urging her towards gentleness. He confronts his silent, furious, betrayed, abandoned wife with “I choose you. Choose me.” Lett takes the ending of his play of religious crisis and personal strength from Milton. As in Paradise Lost, Ken and Nancy confront a new world, washed with the acid of betrayal and forgiveness and, “Hand in hand with wandering steps and slow,/ Through Eden took their solitary way.”

andrew [at]

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