The Living Are Near As Trapped As The Dead In “The Science Of Leaving Omaha”

Though there are more moments of levity in Palm Beach Dramaworks world premiere production of The Science Of Leaving Omaha than you might expect for a play set in a funeral parlor, the story told is ultimately less a ghost story than a story about the ghosts the living can become. 

Take, for instance, Iris. Ostensibly there to keep night watch over the bodies interred at her local funeral home, the 18 year old high-school dropout is also so resigned to her powerlessness that there’s a sense in which she may as well be haunting her own life. Sure, externally, she can summon the illusion of being in high-spirits, if a bit high-strung, but between the troubled family life hinted at in the dialogue and her economically depressed and emotionally desolate surroundings, desperation seems to have become her defining emotion long ago. 

In fact, the only thing that breaks the monotony of her solitary night shift is a break-in from Baker, a man in his early twenties who arrives claiming to be the brother of the recently deceased Ruth Ellen. As the story unfolds, it becomes apparent this was an untruth told to mask what might be an even sadder circumstance: actually, she was his wife of approximately 27 hours, and she’d gotten shot after the two attempted to rob a local bar in the hopes of scoring just enough cash to hit the road. 

In the usual manner that two very different characters always tend to when left on stage together in unusual circumstances, Iris and Baker start out contentious but eventually start to find their common ground. Both, after all, are casualties of a broken system, though Baker had found himself with no choice but to strike back while Iris has thus far avoided it by holding fast to her small semblance of a life. 

But, clearly, both are in the market for a fresh start, which makes believable the fact that they begin to search for it in each other. Refreshingly, though, their bond never becomes explicitly romantic, with both Baker and Iris seeming disgusted by the idea of betraying Ruth Ellen’s memory so soon after her death. 

Instead, the “love” Iris imagines the two of them may share is simply one in which either of them spend even a minute happy, even “completely separately happy,” as she puts it. As Baker originally intended to do with Ruth Ellen, maybe the two of them could simply escape to Albuquerque together to raise alpacas, a humble life that seems to them quite obviously better than their own.

Nicholas Tyler-Corbin and Georgi James

Somehow, it doesn’t feel like too much of a spoiler to suggest that things don’t go quite as planned, considering Baker is a wanted criminal and security guard Sally has also been popping in and out. And though all hope has not been extinguished at the play’s end, whatever characters are left standing have received yet another reminder of the harsh immutability of the ways of the world. And, adding a grim twist to the play’s title, the only characters who appear as if they will be leaving Omaha anytime soon are those who will be doing so in a body bag. 

That Iris has considered this violent means of escape is eventually alluded to in one of the play’s many lyrical touches, in which she imagines seeing a road in the funeral parlor’s crematorium and later remarks upon how hard she’s found it to avoid that path. But the note the play ends on suggests another way to escape Omaha that if less permanent is also far less violent: and though it did seem to come a bit out of nowhere, the interlude that follows is nonetheless a moving one. 

In the end, though this is to some degree a play that feels like a well-done variation on a simple dramatic formula rather than that might break any established molds, there are enough lines that ring with poetry and profundity to make the evening worthwhile. 

As I mentioned, there are also quite a few laughs throughout the play, most of which spring from Iris’s quirky Southern slang or hairpin turns from defensive to overeager. As the character, Georgi James makes for an instantly endearing heroine and ably navigates her complex emotional landscape with an abundance of animated energy. 

Nicholas Tyler-Corbin and Georgi James

Nicholas-Tyler Corbin’s Baker is every bit as likable as the story requires while still delivering all the requisite hard-edges his character’s backstory implies. Rounding out the cast is Merrina Millsapp as a warm yet imposing Sally, who plays a pivotal role in the play’s conclusion. These differing energies are kept in charged interplay by director Bruce Linser, who also keeps the one hour and 35 minute show moving with a sense of brisk ease and total believability.

Luckily, my life is far enough removed from the lives of the play’s unlucky characters that it should be easy for me to relegate my memory of The Science of Leaving Omaha to some dark corner of my mind. But if you can handle standing as close to the crematorium as this play takes you, you may come away pondering some important questions, both political and existential. You may, indeed, find yourself a bit haunted by this story of doomed attempts to escape impossible circumstances—but if that haunting comes with a hint of understanding, it just might be for the best.

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