Backstage Blog

MAN FROM NEBRASKA: Road trip to Lincoln


Jack Missett in front of Nebraska cornfield

On the road at 5 a.m., headed west from the bottom left corner of Iowa across the Missouri River on highway 34, which runs through the heart of the “Prairie Capital City,” Lincoln, the setting for Tracy Letts’ play Man from Nebraska (Oct. 3- Nov. 1, The Old Town Theatre).  When director Fran Gercke heard my wife and I would be visiting her Iowa relatives, he jumped at my offer to do a recon-and-report from Lincoln and blog about it.  So, at 5:42 a.m., I cross the Mizzou at Plattsmouth, Nebraska, on a tiny 2-lane toll bridge ($1.25 each way) – the bridge used to be privately owned by a family who built the bridge and kept all the tolls, but now the city owns it and I believe the price has gone up since my last visit.  A sign reads “NEBRASKA- THE GOOD LIFE.”

Lincoln isn’t just the state capital, it’s also the home to the University of Nebraska Cornhuskers football team – “Go Big Red!”  Corn figures in this story because there’s no escaping it…15 million beautiful acres producing more than a billion bushels of corn (most of it feeder corn for livestock, not sweet corn for our plates).  The gentle hills surrounding Lincoln are vast cornfields, “as high as an elephant’s eye.”  This is America’s farmland – corn, soybeans, sorghum (aka milo) and winter wheat. The most important subject other than the football team is the weather.

Highway 34 turns into O Street as I enter Lincoln at 6:53, searching in vain for a Starbucks.  It’s several blocks and several morning commuters honking their horns at me before I finally find one – Lincoln has lots of coffee shops, but not many Starbucks.  Help me, Toto, we’re not in California anymore.  But one thing Lincoln has plenty of is churches.  The population is about 250,000, and there are 229 churches, or about one church for every 1,000 people.  Man From Nebraska is the story of an ordinary guy who wakes up one morning and discovers he doesn’t believe in God anymore.  And he goes from being a regular church-going, insurance salesman, Baptist family man to a lost soul experiencing a “crisis of faith” in Lincoln.

My friend Carol and I meet up about 8:30.  She’s a U of N grad, lived all her adult life in Lincoln, and accepts my description of Lincolnites as “the plain people of the Plains” with bemusement.  Carol gives me a tour of the sights:  the towering State Capitol building, known to locals as the ‘Penis of the Prairie’ – hey, they said it, not me; the massive Memorial Stadium with it’s motto “Not the victory but the action, not the goal but the game, in the deed the glory” – pretty heady stuff for a football game; the beautiful Sunken Gardens and lovely neighborhoods filled with handsome homes.  Most of the cars I see are American made, and one car dealer has a sign out front reading “Here to Stay!”, I also talked to a couple of drivers and everyone seem to use the i4mt insurance or the best van insurance from onesureinsurance company around the area. All in all, Lincoln seems more of a college town than the seat of state government, perhaps due to the fact that Nebraska is the only state in the union to have a non-partisan, unicameral  legislature (a single chamber representative body – why waste money taking two votes on everything).

More Corn

More Corn

Nebraska is a long state.  With a girlfriend in Iowa and a family in Wyoming, I know – I’ve driven it many times, even got thrown in jail once in Hershey for speeding, but that’s another story.  The state is also divided into north and south Nebraska by the Platt River (remember the toll bridge at Plattsmouth) and Omaha used to be the capital, and Lincoln used to be a town called Lancaster.  Back in Civil War days, people north of the Platt were rooting for the Yankees, and those south of the river – including Lancaster/Lincoln – were Confederate sympathizers…and except for the people in Omaha, everybody wanted to move the state capital out of Omaha to some place more in the middle of the state.  So, in what was seen as a trick vote, the folks in Omaha said, “We’ll move the state capital to Lancaster, but we want to change the name of the town to honor our recently assassinated hero of the Union cause, President Lincoln,” figuring the vote would lose.  But, nope, it passed, they changed the name and moved the capital.  Which may or may not explain why Lincoln is even today a very Caucasian city – 89.3% white, 3.6% Latino, 3.1% Asian , 3% African-American and the rest Native American and Pacific Islander or “other.”  However, in 2008, while the state of Nebraska went for McCain, Lancaster County and the City of Lincoln went for Obama.

A thunderstorm breaks at 9:45, and I say goodbye to Carol, buy a bunch of “Go Big Red” T-shirts for my fellow cast members and head back to Iowa, pausing only to photograph a barn with an American flag, and stopping in Plattsmouth for a raspberry turnover – they were all out of apple.  Sadly, I didn’t make it to the Johnny Carson Theatre, the black box performance space at the University named for the Tonight show star who generously donated $11 million to his alma mater (BA in Radio/Speech, minor in physics). The University also renamed The Department of Theatre Arts the Johnny Carson School of Theatre and Film.  Other famous people from Lincoln include Oscar winning actress Hilary Swank, Vice President Dick Cheney (who graduated from the same high school in Casper, Wyoming, as I did) and Charles Starkweather, mass murderer, who took along his 14 year-old girlfriend Carol Fugate as he killed 11 people, 3 of them in Lincoln.  No one was injured during the research and writing of this blog.  By lunchtime I’m back in Iowa, the sun comes out and we all go to the County Fair – parking and admission are free.

Announcing our 2009/2010 Season

Bill and I are really excited to be able to finally announce the slate of plays selected for our 2009/2010 Season.  It takes a very long time to assemble a good variety of stories that we think fit our mission and that you might want to see and we think we might just have done it! Our seventh season is a line up of productions celebrating an eclectic series about strong individuals in extreme situations. With the exception of a revival musical which will play at Rolando, the entire season will be presented at our new home, the recently renovated Old Town Theatre. Therefore, we are saying a sad goodbye to the Rolando Theatre we have called home since 2003.

Our ‘swan song’ at the Rolando Theatre will brings the return of the show that started it all, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, with book and lyrics by John Cameron Mitchell and music by Stephen Trask.  Hedwig announced our beginnings as a company and after 40 shows, she’s bringing us full circle in our Rolando space! The story of a wannabe rock headliner and her search for identity, love and her “other half” will be directed by James Vasquez and feature Jenn Grinels as Yitzhak.  Filled with comedy, camp and serious rock and roll, Hedwig will touch your heart and ears!

The 09/10 season officially begins with the wildly funny Noises Off, by Michael Frayn (Copenhagen).  I am already working on the casting for this Tony-Award winning play about a motley and disorganized theatre company attempting, against all odds, to rehearse and perform their own production of a slamming-door farce called Nothing On.

In September, we will present the San Diego Premiere of Man from Nebraska by Tony-Award and Pulitzer Prize winning author Tracy Letts (August: Osage County, Bug).  It’s the tale of an ordinary middle-aged man on an extraordinary journey of self-discovery.  The production will be helmed by Associate Artistic Director Francis Gercke (Mauritius, Curse of the Starving Class).

For the holidays we bring the return of It’s A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play, adapted by Joe Landry.  Our audiences demanded that this show return and we listened!  As one subscriber noted: “There are several Scrooge’s in San Diego, but only one George Bailey!”  Tom Andrew returns with his award-winning performance as George Bailey, and the brilliant Scott Paulson will once again reign over Bedford Falls with his old-fashioned Foley sound effects ‘orchestra’.  This year the cast of the fictitious “WCYG Theatre of the Air” will take over the Old Town stage as they recreate the classic story in a “live” 1940’s radio broadcast filled with music and the beloved characters from the film.  In it’s fourth year, It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play is quickly becoming a San Diego tradition.

2010 will kick off with The Piano Lesson by August Wilson (Fences). We are bringing back several of the artists that made our production of Fences so amazing and powerful. The Piano Lesson will be directed by Delicia Turner Sonnenberg (San Diego Critic’s Circle Award Best Director for Fences) and star Mark Christopher Lawrence from NBC’s “Chuck” and our very own Fences, Monique Gaffney (San Diego Critic’s Circle Award Lead Actor, Yellowman) and Antonio TJ Johnson (San Diego Critic’s Circle Award Lead Actor, Fences). August Wilson won his second Pulitzer Prize for The Piano Lesson, his fifth play in the “Pittsburgh Cycle”.  The story of a brother and sister in a war over the fate of a family heirloom, a unique, one-of-a-kind piano carved with the images of the history of their family.  It’s a spiritual, funny, moving and beautiful story of family, ambition, and tradition. 

The Piano Lesson will be followed in the spring by a musical.  I’m still working on rights and availability, but I do have my sights set on a couple of different shows, and any way you slice it, either of them will surely delight fans of musical theatre.

We wrap up the season with the classic comedy of style, Private Lives by Noël Coward.  Still considered one of the most flippant and witty plays ever written. I plan on being in this production, playing Elyot Chase and look forward to diving into the elegant Coward world of moonlit balconies over bone-dry martinis. Private Lives will be directed by James Vasquez, who choreographed A Little Night Music.

It will be a fun and interesting year, that’s for sure. I’m really looking forward to it.