Man From Nebraska
Running through May 20 at 8 p.m.
PURE Theatre
The Cigar Factory, 701 East Bay Street

When, in 1917, a new, ape-like fossilized tooth was found in Nebraska, the speculative prehistoric owner was dubbed “Nebraska Man” by the popular press. The tooth was later discovered to have come from an animal similar to a wild pig and the classification was retracted, but creationists regularly cite the incident as an example of scientists jumping to conclusions in the evolution debate.

In Tracy Letts’ play Man From Nebraska, the main character Ken Carpenter (Randy Neale) is an isolated man who feels abandoned by both science and religion — sort of a modern-day “Nebraska Man.” Is he a compilation of cosmic dust? A descendant of apes? A divine creation of God’s hand? Ken is a church-going family man who takes care of his ailing mother; he’s comfortable in his life and its routines. One night, however, his wife Nancy (Tish Lynn) awakes to the sounds of his sobbing in the bathroom — he admits that he doesn’t believe in God anymore.

This sparks the action of the play. Ken has no reason for his loss of faith, and his family is frightened by it. Upon the suggestion of a vacation by his oily pastor, Reverend Todd (played excellently in his nuances by Rodney Lee Rogers), Ken retreats to London, where he spent time as a soldier years prior. As he stays longer in London, he pulls even further away from his family. But in the process he develops into something more whole.

The plot of Man From Nebraska seems a little weak in parts, with Ken losing himself in alcohol (having never liked alcohol before), trying drugs, and going clubbing in London. The premise is a little stale, but the flaw can be overlooked because of the beauty of the end result and the play as a whole.

The first six, largely dialogue-free scenes set up Ken’s life: the tedium, the quiet routine. He and Nancy driving. At church. At a restaurant. At the nursing home where his mother resides. Man From Nebraska has cinematic qualities — sound leads into the next scene before you get the visual of it; the play is structured as a series of short scenes or “flashes.” It sometimes even seems that a theatrical staging works against this kind of structure. The scene changes between each “flash” often take nearly as long as the scenes themselves. It’s not a matter of slow-moving crew; there are just some very short scenes. These scenes should come off like heavy blinks, but the limited technical resources at PURE make that almost impossible.

In spite of those few flaws, Letts has created a beautiful play. The vignettes are small glimpses of life, and later how it changes or goes on. The longer scenes linger just as they should with the moment at hand. Director Mark Landis handles things gracefully, giving even the most emotional moments a delicate, unobtrusive touch that makes each one float — floating and drifting being a recurring theme in the play.

Randy Neale is superb in his portrayal of Ken. His quiet, beaten-down but dignified manner conveys volumes in experience and emotion, and his eyes carry the weight of the world in them. Lynn is the perfect counterpart as Nancy; her midwestern stoicism played with apprehension makes her appear both hardened and brittle.

Kara O’Neil as aggravated daughter Ashley plays her role well, with the right mix of adult and childish behavior. (Equally important is the role of the other, absent daughter Natalie, whose name is mentioned but is too important to show her face. Ken still loves her, even though she doesn’t do much to prove her existence.) Shon Wilson, Kay Shroka, Sid Katz, and R.W. Smith turn in impressive performances as the other people involved in Ken’s and Nancy’s lives.

Whether or not Man From Nebraska will cause you to question your own religion isn’t the primary point of the play, but redemption of some sort is. PURE proposes that point softly and powerfully.