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Up Flies into the Crazy Air
Mother Road Theatre Company

Also see Rob's review of Miracle on 34th Street


Shangreaux Lagrave
Up (the Man in the Flying Chair) is a refreshing blend of comedy and tragedy. The 1989 story by Bridget Carpenter centers on Walter (Shangreaux Lagrave), a husband and father who has a dream of flying in his chair, whether by weather balloons tied to the chair or by a high-powered fan. Problem is, the dream has consumed all areas of his life, crowding out his ability to relate to his wife and son.

His wife Helen (Amy Suman) has been supporting Walter, both emotionally and financially as a postal carrier. As the story opens, Helen is losing her patience with Walter's "entrepreneurial" dreams that produce no income. It's been 16 years since Walter made a public splash by lifting off in his balloon-supported chair. Now she just wants Walter to get a job and help relieve the family's financial stress.

Their son Mikey (Grey Blanco) has his own problems. He is entering his sophomore years in a high school that he hates. Into this sad setting, two big events send the family spinning. Walter gets a job at a chamber of commerce a couple hours north of the family's San Pedro, California home, and Mikey meets Maria (Amy Bourque), a new girl in school who's pregnant.

Helen is delighted that Walter is marching off to work each day with his briefcase in hand. When she questions him about the job, he brushes her off dismissively. While she doesn't look the gift horse in the mouth, we get hints that things aren't well with Walter. When he's alone he picks twenties from his wallet and tears them into pieces. In one scene he eats the pieces.

Mikey brings his pregnant friend home for dinner, much to Helen's consternation. She can't figure out the relationship between Mikey and Maria. That's OK, Mikey can't either. In an interesting twist, Mikey takes up telemarketing for Maria's aunt's (Staci Robbins) office supply operation, and for the first time in his life, he find he's good at something.

Throughout the first act, Walter keeps imagining conversations with a famous French tightrope walker, Philippe Petit (Ron Weisberg). Petit talks with Walter about balance and risk. The conversations give Walter encouragement, even while he seems the miss the point of balance and risk. Walter is all risk and no balance.

In the second act, the balance begins to slip for all of the characters except the imaginary Petit. Mikey and Helen discover the person they are depending on—the person who is giving them a sense of wellbeing—is instead creating an illusion. The family's world begins to crack as the illusions dissolve.

In his "Director's Statement," Vic Browder notes that the play is "a story about being true to whom you are no matter what this sometimes ugly, usually crazy, and most certainly wonderful world throws at us." While Browder does a masterful job of directing the story, I see the play in much different terms. I found that story is about the destruction that is set loose when dreams deteriorate into delusion.

While Walter's dreams may have once been the elixir that gave magic to Walter and his family, by the opening of the play his dying dreams are beginning to wound those he loves. The whimsy of his aspirations has cracked into an unpleasant break with reality, leaving Helen to deal with the damage he leaves behind. For anyone with big unrealized dreams, this is the nightmare that follows a ruptured dream and takes its cruel toll.

And yet, this is a delightful play to watch, It has a very shiny surface. Browder does an inspired job of matching action in the play with the perfect music. We get West Side Story's "Maria" when Mikey meets Maria, and we get Leon Russell's "Tight Rope" when Petit appears.

The performances are superb. While it can be hard to read Walter's emotional condition, the ambiguity has more to do with the script than Lagrave's solid performance. Amy Shuman is a real standout as Helen, as is Grey Blanco as Mikey. Amy Bourque as Maria is fresh and captivating. Ron Weisberg as Petit and Staci Robbins as Maria's aunt and Helen's mother are both very good.

Up (The Man in the Flying Chair) by the Mother Road Theatre Company runs through December 22. Performances are on Thursday and Friday evenings at 8:00 PM, Saturdays at 6:00 pm and Sundays at 2:00 pm. Performances are held at the MTS Center for the Arts at 6320 Domingo Road NE (two blocks north of Central, two blocks east of San Pedro). General admission is $24, students and senior tickets are $18. You can buy tickets online at motherroad.org or by calling 505-243-0596.


Photo: John Maio

--Rob Spiegel



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