In playwright Keith Reddin's Nebraska, even peacetime military life can be hell. And this Industrial Arts production leaves the viewer drained as Reddin delves into the loneliness, insecurities and futile adulteries plaguing the lives of his characters.
The world these people inhabit is fraught with tension, fear and the terrible responsibility of top-secret work in a nuclear-missile silo. The power of the show lies in the cast's ability to conjure up frustrations and limitations that lie below the surface. The characters, after all, never actually say what they mean--and, unfortunately, neither does Reddin.
Erik Tieze is excellent as the red-cheeked, young Lieutenant Dean Swift, a recent transfer to a strategic air command base near Omaha. Swift and his wife, Julie (played with competent spite by Mia Todd), struggle to communicate. But she suffers from an inferiority complex and he from an excess of macho self-importance. Tieze carries off all the boyish bluster of a military type, but as the character starts to change, he creates a thousand nuances of fragility. His distress really strikes home as Swift questions his ability to "push the button" should the command come.
When Swift skulks off to meet Carol Gurney, his major's wife, at a sleazy hotel, the fact that he cannot, or will not, consummate the affair does not free him from his guilt. There's a pattern here, and we soon find out that adultery is not new to him. Still, something has changed--he may not understand it, but his conscience is bothering him. Sadly, his wife's rage when she finds out about the aborted rendezvous deafens her to his inarticulate cry.
But the greater grief belongs to Major Gurney when he learns of the affair. Gurney is too good for the Air Force and too good for his wife's petulant antics. Sensitive to beauty, a little nerdy, a little needy, he tries to make Carol happy, but the military system itself and life on the base baffles the couple's best efforts at connection. Stephen Sealy gives a choice performance as the Major; gazing soulfully off into space as he listens to Mozart, he is unaware of the turmoil around him. We realize he might have had a decent life if only he had chosen another line of work.
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Philip Luna as the treacherous Lieutenant Fielding, Swift's partner at the bottom of the silo, creates a black pool of noxious feeling in which all the other characters drown. Luna makes Fielding light-minded, good-humored and utterly perfidious--an accomplished, creepy human trap for the unwary.
This is tough theater. But thought-provoking as it is, the show feels fragmented. Part of the problem is that many scenes are very short, and the set at the Loft Theatre is too cumbersome for the quick changes needed to keep the action flowing. Those long pauses in the dark as the center wall is wheeled laboriously around are tedious in the extreme, and since the play is already rife with examples of the tediousness of military life, audience patience is tried too far.
But the real problem is that the playwright assumes that we understand why military life is so deadening. Reddin reveals so little about the military mindset that the audience must take it on faith that he's right about its repressive nature. The world he creates is indeed circumscribed, drab and spiritless--but that might just as easily describe corporate life or even the atmosphere on a university campus.
Military life is depressing, adultery is bad for marriage, and the sensitive soul needs something besides a steady dose of humiliation--it's all substantial raw material for a great drama. Nebraska misses greatness because Reddin hasn't cared enough for his characters to give them a glimmer of self-knowledge. They are all victims of their own biological destinies (there are several references to Darwin), and there is no escape for any of them--nor for us, until we leave the theater.