Playwright Carter W. Lewis does not have much positive to say about Omaha, the setting of his latest play, now receiving its world premiere at Palm Beach Dramaworks. But in his program notes, the production’s director Bruce Linser suggests that the Nebraska town is merely a microcosm for a nationwide society that has failed to provide the educational, economic and social resources to “today’s young working poor.”
It is a message worth mulling, though the usually nimble Lewis delivers it with a heavier hand than desirable in The Science of Leaving Omaha.
Iris and Baker are the two young adults in question, both leading dead-end lives, getting by on dead-end subsistence jobs in Omaha. She works the overnight shift at the crematorium of the Belladonna Funeral Home, while he is an unemployed former gas station attendant and former nursing home orderly.
They would likely have never met if he hadn’t tried to rob a bar on his way out of town to a new life in Albuquerque with his new wife of 27 hours. Caught in the crossfire, the wife was killed and now — as the play opens — Baker is breaking into the funeral home intent on giving her a proper, final farewell.
Easily agitated Iris is both perplexed and excited by this intruder in her midst. While trying to maintain the crematorium’s policies and protocols. Iris soon hitches her fate to Baker and prepares to hit the road with him to New Mexico.
But as you might imagine, leaving Omaha turns out not to be an exact science.
Neither Iris nor Baker has much education, so the conversation between them is simple and often awkward. But talk they do for most of the play’s hour-and-40-minute, intermissionless running time. Besides a few phone calls by Iris to her funeral home owner boss, her dialogue with Baker is broken up only by two appearances from Sally (Merrina Millsapp), a by-the-books security guard whose only actual function in the play is to facilitate the conclusion.
Without much action, The Science of Leaving Omaha could have been a fairly inert exercise, but director Linser – who was instrumental in the play’s development through the Dramaworkshop which he heads – keeps his actors in near-constant nervous movement.
He is fortunate to have found a pair of first-rate young actors, Georgi James (Iris) and Nicholas Tyler-Corbin (Baker), both making their Dramaworks debut. She is particularly appealing in her agitation and emotional flux, torn between her employment responsibilities and a natural urge to assist Baker. Lewis has her spouting folksy expressions like “holy buckets of cats,” disconcerting in their artificiality, but James makes them work.
Tyler-Corbin has a similar challenge, playing Baker’s frequent fits of rage while retaining audience empathy, a balancing act which he manages. We recognize the loose cannon quality in the character, yet continue to root for his escape to a better life. Although a downbeat fate for Baker seems preordained, Lewis adds a fantasy coda for those who are in need of a glimmer of hope.
Dramaworks’ go-to scenic designer Michael Amico has come up with a funeral home set to die for, complemented by Kirk Bookman’s fiery crematorium lighting effect, a hellish, glowing orange. Factor in the naturalistic wardrobe by Brian O’Keefe and the eerie things-that-go-bump-in-the-night sound from Roger Arnold, and it adds up to another design triumph for the company.
Lewis often premiered his theatrical output at Florida Stage, and perhaps he has found a new local artistic home at Palm Beach Dramaworks, as it continues to emphasize producing new plays. The Science of Leaving Omaha may not be his best work, but PBD certainly gives him all he could hope for in a production.
THE SCIENCE OF LEAVING OMAHA, Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. Through Sun., Feb. 19. $84. 561-514-4042, ext. 2.