"Omaha is a state of mind," declares a resident provocatively in Don Cook's new play, now at The Warehouse Performing Arts Center in Cornelius through Aug. 8. Trouble is, defining and exploring that state of mind isn't among Cook's top priorities in Fast Trip to Omaha, so there's a superficiality to this dramatic comedy that reflects on the title all too well.
But there's also the plenitude of a well-made play as Scott, a successful (but unfulfilled) writer based in Detroit, drops in on his dad and stepmom out in Nebraska, looking for answers to questions that have been gnawing at his guts for decades. How did his parents meet and fall in love? What broke the couple up and allowed his stepmom, Connie, to replace his mom in his father Eddie's affections? And why has the relationship between father and son always been so sour?
Act 1 has some deft exposition as we learn about Scott's mom back in Motown, his married "Des Moines detour" with whom he's carrying on a dead-end affair, and the wreckage of his own first marriage, namely his hostile ex and a son who has drifted away. We're also introduced to Scott's half-sister Liz and Eddie's longtime pal Sticks, who played drums behind Eddie's trumpet in a Swing Era jazzband even before Connie joined the group as a singer.
Notwithstanding all these intricacies, Cook spends too much time hammering home the idea that Scott has made – and is making – the same mistakes his father made a generation earlier. Less explicitly, the playwright communicates to us that Liz and Sticks will be instrumental in unraveling the mysteries that Scott seeks to solve, that there will be no loose ends when we're done, and that catastrophe is not in the cards.
Yet the action after intermission proves surprisingly frisky. Cook has grooved the fault lines that lurk beneath this fragmented family more darkly than you might suspect, and the depth of the selfishness and deceit lying at the heart of the seismic shifts in Scott's family have repercussions that not only stagger him but the Omaha household as well. After the confidences, bickering, drinking, and backbiting of Act 1, we escalate into shocking revelations powerful enough to spark rage and violence.
Without the assistance of a fight choreographer – or a substantial design budget from the fledgling DC2 Productions – Tim Ross directs with a sure sense of the script's pacing and personalities. Clad in hippy-era dashikis and a wig best described as blond James Brown, Scott Reynolds discards his customary slickness and precisely captures Scott's seething passions and smoldering self-loathing. Opposite him, Bill Neff brings his characteristic stone-faced cragginess to Scott's dad, Eddie, with a couple of mischievous spasms that I could only marvel at.
But the 2 in the name of Cook's company isn't merely exponential, for the other DC in the production team is Cook's wife, Divina Cook, and she is gloriously onstage as Connie. Anyone who saw Cook at the Warehouse this spring in Road to Mecca will know that I'm not exaggerating her power. She gets a chance to unleash it during the best moments of the Omaha denouement, once again meriting the pilgrimage all by herself.
Annette Saunders brings a very full three dimensions to Liz, whose sibling resentments are a rather hackneyed outgrowth of her unappreciated devotion to her dad. George Gray keeps us intently focused on those spare traits the playwright has chosen for Sticks – his love of the grape, his chronic lechery, and his inability to keep his mouth shut at pivotal moments.
Sticks should count for more. More egregious than Cook's failure to illuminate the soul of Omaha is his neglect of the music that brought Eddie, Sticks, and Connie together. Aside from the trumpet that Eddie quit playing decades earlier, the home he has made with his former singer doesn't look like a musicians' home, and the music they made together is never mentioned.
And here is Scott entering their place in 1969 with dashiki and bell bottoms, yet never a mention of the generation gap. Not even a jab from Eddie, Connie, or Sticks at the music and lifestyle that has pushed the music of their youth to the brink of extinction. With a running time of 1:44, two minutes less than the Drowsy Chaperone one-act I attended the night before, there's plenty of room for the playwright to texturize his gripping clash with history, geography, and culture. If he's up to the risks.
Meanwhile, DC2 is definitely worth looking into. With "three or four" more shows planned for 2010-11, they're promising to enrich an already burgeoning Warehouse scene up in Cornelius.