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Tracy Letts' "Man From Nebraska" At Cygnet Theatre

Jeffrey Jones, Monique Gaffney, Michael Rich Sears in Cygnet Theatre's "Man From Nebraska"
Daren Scott
Jeffrey Jones, Monique Gaffney, Michael Rich Sears in Cygnet Theatre's "Man From Nebraska"
Tracy Letts' "Man From Nebraska" At Cygnet Theatre
Pulitzer prize-winning playwright Tracy Letts' play "Man From Nebraska," tells the story of insurance salesman Ken Carpenter, who wakes up from his routine-oriented life to discover he no longer believes in God. This crisis of meaning takes him from Nebraska to London and the world of the British counter-culture. Cygnet Theatre's "Man from Nebraska" is directed by Francis Gercke and stars Monique Gaffney as a British waitress.

Cygnet Theatre's production of "Man From Nebraska" runs through November 1st at the Old Town Theatre.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. Life-altering revelations rarely come in the middle of the day. Instead, they choose that black hole of existence, the middle of the night, when our guard is down and all bets are off. And it's just such a middle of the night crisis that launches the story line of the play "Man from Nebraska." It's a tale of doubt, disillusionment and self-renewal that begins deep in the heartland of America. The playwright is Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy Letts, and Cygnet Theatre is presenting the San Diego premiere of "Man From Nebraska." Joining me now is my guest, Francis Gercke. He’s directing Cygnet’s production of “Man From Nebraska.” He’s also the associate artistic director at Cygnet. And, Francis, welcome to These Days.

FRANCIS GERCKE (Director): Hey, thank you very much.

CAVANAUGH: Now why did you want to direct “Man From Nebraska?” What was it that intrigued you about this play?

GERCKE: That’s a – Oh, man, that’s a really good question. Matter of fact, I was talking to somebody about that the other day and I never know how to answer these questions. I think the thing about a play, when you recognize that you want to be a part of it – I can’t stand reading plays. That’s an awful admission. But they – because they’re meant to be seen, it’s hard to lift them off the page and to get that sort of three-dimensional view. It’s sort of like who wants to read a screenplay; you want to see the movie. And the thing about “Man From Nebraska” is I read it like a great piece of fiction, it was cover-to-cover, all in one sitting, and it was really easy for me to imagine, so I just wanted to be a part of it desperately. And, thankfully, Sean Murray, the artistic director, got the rights for the play and then said, would you like to direct this? And I was like, oh, my God, please. And then, of course, once you get the chance to direct it, you’re like, oh, my God, I’m going to screw it up. So…

CAVANAUGH: Well, you know, it could be said that this play is about one man’s midlife crisis but you think it’s about a crisis that happens more than at midlife, more than once.

GERCKE: Yeah, I think that, you know, some – I think a midlife crisis can tend to have a, you know, derogatory – we can use it derogatorily. It’s banal or whatever. And I go through crises, you know, at least like, you know, three times a day, like life-altering changes, like who am I? Do I believe in God? Do I believe in, you know, anything that I’m touching right now? Maybe that’s just me. But I think that whether you’re two, ten, twenty, I thought that life couldn’t get, you know, more troubling when I was in – I remember my high school soccer coach said enjoy college because it’s the best four-year paid vacation you’re ever going to have. And I thought it can’t be. And now that, you know, I’m at the age that I’m at now, I think, oh, my God, he was right. And I think that every age, whether it be, again, 20 to 37 to 52, whatever it might be, we’re dealing with these life-altering circumstances and I think that’s the thing that’s powerful about the play.

CAVANAUGH: Tell us what happens to Ken Carpenter, the protagonist of the "Man From Nebraska." What happens to him in this crisis in the middle of the night?

GERCKE: In the middle of the night, it’s a crisis of everything disappearing from him. It’s not just – I think it’s limiting to say that it’s a – he loses his faith in God. He loses his faith in everything. And I think the thing that’s important is that he is a man like any other man, woman or, you know, child, you know, in the world. He’s heavily invested in his life. He believes in his life, he believes in his way of life, his job, his children, his wife. And, you know, I was thinking about this on the way down and I thought like you take your children and I don’t know if – for me, that’s the greatest example of love in my life. I don’t even know if you could categorize it as love; it’s more like I want to possess the child. You know, it’s this – And to lose a desire or a knowledge that that is at all part of my life anymore would be devastating. And I think that’s the thing that Ken Carpenter goes through. It’s that awful questioning that we put ourselves through that eventually, I think, leads to great maturity, great wisdom, a greater sense of humor in our lives, and I think that’s what he’s going through. And the example that he gives is he tells his wife, I don’t believe in God anymore, and then in order to explain it further in a very panicky discussion, he says, I don’t believe in the stars, which is basically I don’t believe in anything. I don’t believe in science. I don’t believe in, you know, you. I hope I described it.

CAVANAUGH: Well, yes, this fundamental disorientation that is just – blows his life apart. And it sets him on a journey though. He doesn’t just stay in that space.


CAVANAUGH: He moves on.

GERCKE: Yeah, he does. He does. Oddly enough, you know, through the advice of his pastor, who tells him, you know, take a little break, take a vacation, and Ken takes it to the extreme and leaves the country, you know, so – And I think that that is the other thing about Ken Carpenter where he can be perceived as – I had a discussion with actually Angela yesterday when we were talking about the play and she said – She said, Ken came come off as passive. And I don’t think he’s passive, I think he is like many of us, actively trying to keep those impulses inside, those inappropriate responses to life that might seem selfish or in poor taste or not toeing the line. He aggressively lets loose and lets go of his inhibitions, which can throw us into, you know, deep controversy in our lives. But, yeah, he goes to London and he starts to indulge in a lot of behaviors that you wouldn’t expect an insurance salesman from Nebraska to do.

CAVANAUGH: Now, I want to ask you a technical question about this play. As we continue our discussion, in the second half we’re going to be speaking with some of the actors and hear a reading from "Man From Nebraska." But the thing is, this is a very complex play to stage. It has a lot of different scene changes and so forth, and you decided to handle that in a unique way. Tell us about that.

GERCKE: I – And what’s great about this is I never like to accept responsibility for anything that I do and here I can actually legitimately say it was a team effort is that…


GERCKE: …the scene designer Brian Redfern, the artistic director of the company, Sean Murray and then an advisor, a professor at SDSU, Ralph Funicello, we were all in a meeting, a design meeting and the idea came up that we not use any props, that we not use any real set pieces because there are about 30 scene changes that would become cumbersome. And then it was borrowing upon the idea of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” and that things, actions, objects, could be pantomimed. Place could be created through light, sound and just a few chairs. And that rather than limiting then it becomes liberating. Is that – And then the other thing that I’ve heard, and I’ve heard this from audience members, which you hope they pick up on but you don’t want to impress upon them, you know, beat them over the head with it, but what they – what audience members have said is that what’s really neat about that is you get to focus on the actors, the actor as main storyteller, and then the characters really do become the focus of the story. So, you know, I would love to think that it’s a brilliant concept. I think it was just cheating because I didn’t know what to do, so I said let’s take everything off the stage, you know. But, yeah, no, that’s the way that was created.

CAVANAUGH: We’re talking about the play "Man From Nebraska" that is currently running at Cygnet Theatre, and Francis Gercke is the director of that play. When we return after a very short break, we’ll be talking more with Francis Gercke and two of the actors in the play. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.

CAVANAUGH: Welcome back. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS. We’re talking about Cygnet Theatre’s production of a play called "Man From Nebraska." The play’s director, Francis Gercke, is joining us again. And we have two new guests, two actors from the play. Monique Gaffney plays the role of Tamyra, a British bartender, and Michael Rich Sears plays Ken Carpenter, the man from Nebraska. Now, Francis, our actors are going to be doing a scene from the play, and I wonder if you could set the scene up for us.

GERCKE: Sure. This is – Ken has taken the drastic measure of, on the advice of his pastor, of taking a little trip, and Ken’s idea of a trip is to go to London, a place that he is really quite unfamiliar with. And he – that’s the beginning of his journey. And I think that is – sets it up really well.

CAVANAUGH: All right then.

(audio of scene from "Man From Nebraska")

CAVANAUGH: That’s a reading from "Man From Nebraska," the production that is being performed at Cygnet Theatre and our actors were Monique Gaffney and Michael Sears. And I want to talk to you – the both of you for just a few moments, if I may. Thank you for that reading. I think it really gives us an idea of the kind of tension and the kind of – the kind of issues that are being explored in the play. And, Mike, I want to ask you, how physical is this role for you? Do you use your body in any way to show Ken’s vulnerability?

MICHAEL RICH SEARS (Actor): Yeah. It’s exhausting. I feel – At the end of the night, I feel like I was hit by a bus. There – When we were in the rehearsal process, Sean and Fran, towards the very end of the rehearsal process before we opened, began to use this word ‘opera’ in talking about the play having the scope of an opera, which I never really thought about and which helped extensively. And how that kind of became translated into behavior is just a full, full experience, not only an emotional experience in terms of what’s being lived through in the play but a physical experience. There’s the scene in the bathroom where the – where everything breaks out, that’s physically exhausting. There’s – There are three scenes I can think of in the play that are just all-encompassing physically. I don’t know if that is very clear but the character, we worked with the idea of this character being someone who in life is very still and stoic, quiet, and then in the course of this story not only does the dam bust physically – or, emotionally but also physically so that there’s a big expression physically through the course of the play.

CAVANAUGH: Now Ken Carpenter is a different kind of male protagonist. Usually you don’t see men being portrayed quite as off balance or vulnerable…

SEARS: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: …as he is.

SEARS: Yeah…

CAVANAUGH: Would you agree?

SEARS: I would agree. And, in fact, that was, for me, a big discovery in the rehearsal process. Again, that – I was saying to Fran at one point, I think I was seduced by not only the simplicity of the language but the location of the story in terms of the depth of the experience. So I understood the behavior and the physicality of this character, and what we came to learn in the course of the rehearsal is that what’s behind that stillness and that stoicism is so great that the depth of this questioning and this need to know and to find another way is so great that it – it breaks through the dam of how this man lives day to day.

CAVANAUGH: Monique, I do want to ask you, in that reading that we heard, doesn’t sound like Tamyra has much sympathy or empathy for Ken, at least starting out. Does that develop?

MONIQUE GAFFNEY (Actress): Yes, it definitely does develop. I think when she first meets Ken and meets this American, you know, she’s at her job which she does every day and she goes into – she goes into her story about her problems later but when she first initially meets Ken, you know, there’s this curiosity. But, you know, I’m at my job. I’m a bartender. I need to make money. This is what I need to do. But later on, in particular in Act Two, as their relationship starts to develop, she sees him in a different light, you know, she’s…

CAVANAUGH: What kind of a light?

GAFFNEY: Initially, he’s this, you know, he’s a patron at the bar and she needs to make her money. And then as she starts to listen to him, she finds out about this struggle he’s having, this inner struggle, and she’s very intrigued by it and she decides to – One of her objectives, I’ll say, is to, you know, to teach him, you know, about life, a different way of life, you know. We all know that life is about choices and you have to deal with the consequences of your choices, and I think she’s trying to enlighten him that there are other choices and there’s other ways to live your life and you can find that.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Francis, I have read that this seems to be a departure for Tracy Letts, the playwright. It’s not like the other plays that perhaps people have seen by him. Would you agree?

GERCKE: Yeah, I would. I would. And I hope somebody really smart wrote that so I can be agreeing with somebody really smart. No, the – I think the thing is that, if anybody’s familiar with Tracy Letts’ work, which may or may not be the case–I don’t know why I feel the need to make these tangential comments and edit myself. Anyway, here we go—is that his plays tend to be very – I know Mike was involved in a play called “Killer Joe,” which the play literally sort of explodes in gunfire at the end, and then a play called “Bug,” which, literally, the characters ignite themselves with, you know, gasoline in order to escape and, of course, “August: Osage County” is just, you know, that is just an incredible play, a train wreck of a family that you can’t help but want to spend three hours with.

CAVANAUGH: And that’s where Letts won his Pulitzer Prize.



GERCKE: Exactly, and the "Man From Nebraska" was nominated for the Pulitzer but it’s curiously – The way I describe it and these are my words and these do not come from Tracy Letts, but when I first read the play, if you had scratched out Tracy Letts’ name I wouldn’t have recognized it as his work. And I would have honestly thought that maybe it was a lost play from Tennessee Williams? Like and I know that’s – People are like – anybody in the know is like laughing like right now, like why did he say that? That’s ridiculous. But there’s such a difference in tone and it is – it’s almost as if Tracy Letts, he said, oh, I’m going to write a play without explosions, without gunfire, without gasoline, and I’m just going to see what happens. And I think it’s just a beautiful, beautiful, beautiful play that’s sort of like – I don’t even want to say what it is. Come, see it.

CAVANAUGH: But what a wonderful place…

GAFFNEY: And you…

CAVANAUGH: …to end it. We are going to have to end it here. Thank you so much. I want to thank my guests. Francis Gercke, director of the Cygnet production of "Man From Nebraska.” And actors Michael Sears and Monique Gaffney, thank you so much for giving us that reading.

GAFFNEY: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: And I want to let everyone know Cygnet Theatre’s production of "Man From Nebraska" runs through November first at the Old Town Theatre. And we have to take a short break and we will be returning. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.