Nebraska | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Bailiwick Repertory

I recently interviewed an evangelical preacher who has founded an extremely successful church near Chicago. Every weekend 12,000 people flock to hear him speak, and 4,000 return for the Wednesday night service. His church's budget is balanced by more than $7 million in contributions from the congregation. There's talk of doubling the size of the auditorium.

He's no flamboyant, Bible-thumping preacher, however. He's a quiet, thoughtful man whose sermons are full of folksy common sense. His goal, he says, is simply to build a community of Christians committed to applying the teachings of Jesus Christ to their own lives. When I met him, he seemed sincere, and I concluded that he was harmless.

But as I watched him assert his version of the truth, I was troubled by the power this man has over the people who fall under his sway. Many I talked to had been confused and distressed when they started coming to the church. Some had experienced a death in the family or had gone through a divorce. At any rate, they were deeply dissatisfied with the way life had turned out for them, and they were eager to embrace some other version of reality that promised happiness and fulfillment. That is precisely what this preacher provides. He tells them that God loves them and will grant them eternal happiness when they die. All they have to do is believe in the Bible and their lives will be filled with meaning. It's a childish version of reality, but desperate people will embrace almost any belief that promises to relieve their suffering. That willingness to believe can lead people into some mighty wicked territory.

John Logan's Nebraska plunges into that territory like a courageous explorer. Although billed as a play about the farm crisis and the rise of survivalist cults, it's actually about the way people explain reality to themselves and ascribe meaning to their experience. We all do this. We all create a private mythology that provides answers to the questions that life poses. Although the word myth has become virtually synonymous with falsehood, our myths are not fantastic creations. In fact, they seem utterly self-evident. The statement "all men are created equal" is a myth, and yet many Americans believe it so deeply they'd give their lives to defend it. The problem is that there's seldom any way to demonstrate the validity of myths. They are true because we believe them to be true, and there's really nothing to prevent people from embracing a version of truth that seems very strange to the rest of us.

Nebraska, which is based on a true story, revolves around a preacher named Orum who espouses a version of truth that is very strange indeed. He gets his followers to accept the bizarre notion that they are the "true Jews," the descendants of the 13th tribe that left the Middle East centuries before the birth of Christ and "passed over the Caucasus mountains and founded the new Israel of England--British Israel." According to Orum, these true Jews came over on the Mayflower and became the Founding Fathers. The "false" Jews--"the blood-drinking, Christ-killing heathens," as Orum calls them--have been trying to take power away from white Anglo-Saxon Americans, the true Jews. "All this is in the Bible," he asserts.

Jed, a young farmer whose wife has just died, falls in with Orum and his followers. He is despondent over the loss of his wife and worried about raising his small son alone. He craves reassurance and companionship, and they're what the members of this small cult provide. So Jed accepts the notion that Orum is Yahweh's man on earth and begins to prepare with the others for the "final battle" that the Bible says will take place on a plain called Armageddon. According to Orum, that battle will take place in Nebraska and will be remembered as the "Battle of the Wheat Fields."

The group moves onto Jed's hog farm, which they quickly turn into an armed fortress to protect themselves from communists, Jews, homosexuals, the "mud people" (blacks), liberals, bankers, and, of course, the devil. They patrol the barbed-wire perimeter with their automatic rifles and almost kill Jed's father when he comes to find out what has become of his son and grandson.

This story is supplemented by narrators who, like a Greek chorus, interject information that gives the play perspective. To establish the fact that farmers like Jed are desperate, they rattle off statistics about family farm failures and about the suicide rate among farmers, which is twice the national average. To evoke the setting, they provide information about Nebraska, that "blank box of earth" with "summers of unbearable heat" and winters full of snow "so fierce that a little boy looking for a lost cat can get swallowed up 20 feet from his front door."

The narrators, with their solemn incantations, are very imposing, especially under Tom Fleming's stark lighting. But the playwright pushes this device too far. Logan is pursuing a sweeping vision in this play, one too large for a simple, realistic plot. He is depicting downtrodden people suffering on wide-open plains once populated by Indians and rugged pioneers. He is taking shots at the American cult of individualism and the myth of the strong, silent man acting alone"--the myth, he suggests, that lies behind the countless hate groups that keep appearing in this country. Logan even invokes the atomic bomb as the ultimate source of anxiety for modern people.

There is a disappointing lack of integration to all these ideas, however. At times, the pronouncements of the narrators seem arbitrary, as though Logan merely stuffed all the excess information he accumulated into their mouths.

Still, Nebraska is a powerful play. Logan is delving into some big issues--the politics of hate, the malignant aspects of Rambo-like individualism, the tenuous nature of the belief systems we construct. The declamatory tone of the narrators is suited to the serious, ominous nature of these issues, and director Doug Finlayson blends these choral interludes into the narrative naturally, so they don't sound bombastic or silly.

The set, built on several tons of rich earth, is appropriate and even attractive in a homely way. There are many clever touches to the design as well--the plow turns into guns, for example, and Jed's son is represented by a plain wooden dummy.

The performances are solid. As Orum, Skip Sudduth projects the energy of a zealot, although he hasn't developed the stillness of a charismatic leader. He dissipates too much of his energy in nervous arm waving instead of investing it in his eyes and his voice, where it would draw the audience's attention to his character's deranged visions. Stephen West brings warmth and intelligence to Jed, although the script doesn't provide him much opportunity to express Jed's desperation. In her two roles, Donna Powers impressively transforms herself from Jed's sweet, innocent wife into a tough, no-nonsense follower of Orum.

So what's the problem? The subject matter is gripping, the play's structure is inventive, and the staging is excellent. It's almost possible to overlook the fact that Nebraska doesn't work very well. But it doesn't. The story loses its subtlety early--Jed's desperation is glossed over, for example, while Orum's deepening psychosis becomes the focus--and the plot starts to resemble a made-for-TV movie. The narrators, who have the opportunity to set the tone with highly compressed, poetic images, become bogged down in details or engulfed in overblown rhetoric.

In short, Nebraska looks like a play that's not quite finished. The structure is solid enough to hold the weighty themes placed upon it, and some of the language is certainly beautiful. But the play lacks focus, as though the playwright hasn't quite thought through the issues he has raised. If he ever does, Nebraska has the potential to become a stunning piece of theater.

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