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Silence speaks volumes in SLAC's 'Nebraska'

Superb cast explores man's crisis of faith, how it impacts family

Nancy Carpenter (Anita Booher), Cammie Carpenter (Joan Erbin) and Ken Carpenter (Joe Cronin) in "The Man From Nebraska" at SLAC.
Nancy Carpenter (Anita Booher), Cammie Carpenter (Joan Erbin) and Ken Carpenter (Joe Cronin) in "The Man From Nebraska" at SLAC.
Tom Smart, Deseret Morning News

MAN FROM NEBRASKA, Salt Lake Acting Company, through Dec. 11 (363-7522 or 355-2787). Running time: two hours, 45 minutes (one intermission).

If silence is golden, "Man From Nebraska" may be the theatrical equivalent of Fort Knox.

Ken and Nancy Carpenter, who live in the Midwest "Bible Belt," consider themselves strong Baptists with a solid marriage and two grown daughters. They just don't communicate.

The first line of dialogue in Tracy Letts' Pulitzer Prize finalist drama doesn't come until four minutes into the play — and then it's just a ho-hum aside by Nancy, while they're driving, that "they're finally tearing down that ugly house over there."

Nothing pivotal, but the occasional stretches of silence during the play speak volumes. The downside is that, at nearly three hours long, the plot tends to merely plod.

One big plus is Keven Myhre's fascinating set. In a drama that shifts back and forth among more than a dozen locales across some 24 scenes, the spotlighted montage of props — a stove (the kitchen), a medicine cabinet (the bathroom), etc. — helps keep the audience on track.

The cast, directed by Richard Scott, is superb. Joe Cronin delivers a heart-wrenching performance as Ken Carpenter, an insurance salesman who, late one night, suffers an emotional meltdown and religious crisis. When his wife, Nancy — a well-honed performance by Anita Booher — finds him sobbing in the bathroom, their marriage comes to a painful crossroads.

"I don't believe in God," Ken tells his wife. All of a sudden, he's running on empty, and he's concluded that maybe "empty" is good enough.

Their apathetic minister (the Rev. Todd, played by Jason Tatom) simply suggests that Ken needs a vacation ("Seek and ye shall find, buddy"). So Ken takes off for London, where he served in the Air Force, confronting his fears and some interesting situations along the way.

Nancy is left behind, stuck in Nebraska, dealing with their irate married daughter Ashley (JJ Neward), Ken's ailing mother (Joan Erbin) and fending off their pastor's lecherous father (Tony Larimer).

Meanwhile, Ken is befriend-ed by divorced businesswoman Pat Monday (Susan Dolan), who attempts to seduce him in his hotel room; sympathetic but cynical bartender Tamyra (Anita Holland); and her flatmate, firebrand sculptor Harry Brown (Tommy Barron).

"If you've come to England looking for God, you'll be disappointed," Tamyra (pronounced Tam-eye-ruh) says. "He hasn't been here since the Crusades."

But Ken is on a crusade of his own, attempting to find himself. It's a roller-coaster journey that takes him places completely alien to his Bible Belt upbringing.

"Why am I here?" Ken asks Tamyra.

"Your spiritual adviser told you to take a vacation. You vacated," she replies.

Like all vacations, this trip eventually ends — with both Ken and Nancy changed in the process. For the better? Maybe. But maybe not.

Sensitivity rating: Partial nudity (Tamyra posing for a sculpting session), considerable adult language and a graphic seduction scene.