Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Bridget Carpenter used this page from the annals of American eccentrics as the basis of her play Up: The Man in the Flying Chair. The remarkable Theatre Pro Rata production, on the Boss Thrust Stage at Park Square Theatre, uses animation to create stage settings that feel fresh and uplifting, yet frame a story that, like the man in the chair, falls from those heights to a heartbreaking reality.
Except for a couple of scenes in flashback, the play takes place in 1998, sixteen years after the lawn chair flyer, his name here changed to Walter Griffin, had his moment of glory. Over those years, Walter remains obsessed with becoming airborne, claiming the title "inventor" as he tinkers with impractical contraptions. He is also obsessed with Philippe Petit, whose astonishing 1974 tight-rope walk between the two World Trade Center towers, among other feats, beckons to Walter like a golden fleece. Walter's inability to commit to any means of earning a living causes his wife Helen, who supports the family as a mail carrier, growing frustration and resentment. Helen looks forward to the day she can draw on her pension and take classes to do less taxing work. What she really wants is for Walter to take those classes or to look for a jobanything to make life for them and their 16-year-old son Mikey more secure. Instead, Walter spends his days puzzling over vague ideas for new inventions, fixated on his identity as the creator of the flying chair and unable to see himself in any other light.
Up begins on the first day of Mikey's sophomore year of high school. A sullen, long-haired youth who suffered through freshman year, he is certain that this year will "suck" just as much. He does show interest in his dad's tinkering, not realizing how much Walter's quest to recapture his moment of glory is costing their family. His father advises him not to be chained down with a job, and to pursue what he wants most to do. Mikey's problem is that he has no idea of wanting to do anything.
A new girl at school, Maria, draws Mikey out of his solitude. When she presses him for not talking much he states, quite sincerely, "I guess I'm more of a listener." Maria appreciates Mikey for not saying anything about the fact that she is visibly pregnant. Before long, Mikey and Maria are friends, with a dinner at his homea shock to his parentsand at the house where Maria lives with her Aunt Chris, an unattached businesswoman who took Maria in after her alcoholic mother threw her out for getting pregnant. Chris offers Mikey a job. The job seems pretty sketchy, but Mikey can't see that. For the first time he realizes the satisfaction of earning money and of feeling accomplished at something.
Walter suffers from misguided ideas about what gives a man value. He longs to be the next, great Philippe Petit, who appears to Walter as a silent vision and eggs him on to pursue his self-absorbed dream. Mikey has not been shown good options: his mother, trapped in an exhausting job she can't wait to retire from, and his father claiming to be self-actualizing when he in fact is accomplishing and contributing nothing. Then, as things become increasingly strained between Helen and Walter, he agrees to find a job and Helen is elated when he actually follows through. Meanwhile, Mikey's growing friendship with Maria has found the tenderness in his heart, and his great success working for Chris gives his self-esteem a much needed boost. Can life have taken such a happy turn for the Griffin family?
Carpenter has created characters that are all believable, flawed people, even the delusional Walter. John Middleton could not be more attuned to Walter, coming across as a heck of a nice guy, but so wrapped up in his delusions that everything about the real world looks grim and pointless to himeven his marriage. Shanan Custer is great as long-suffering Helen, struggling to remain patient with Walter and deflecting her own pain with sharp-witted humor (which happens to be Custer's specialty). The only thing that rings untrue (and this is in the script, not in Custer's ace performance) is that Helen would have put up with Walter for so long.
Keegan Robinson totally nails the gawky mannerisms, speech, and inner turmoil of a lost 16-year-old as Mikey. His response when Maria bluntly asks him if he is a virgin may just be worth the price of admission alone. Maria may seem more grounded and self-possessed than one might expect of an unwed pregnant teenager who never knew her dad and whose mother is an abusive alcoholic. Yet, she comes across with utter realism as she naively launches pearls of truth, especially as performed by Lillie Horton, an actor who absolutely bears watching. Noë Tallen is effective as Aunt Chris, a tough operator who obscures her deceit with a hearty laugh, line dancing, and tarot card readings. Mark Benzel silently plays Philippe Petit with a beseeching quality aimed at keeping Walter in bondage to his madness.
Max Lindorfer has created wonderful line-drawn sets that appear, by way of animation, on the rear wall of the Boss' thrust stage. Their coming and going is itself an entertainment, and wondrously used by director Carin Bratlie Wethern to make seamless transitions between scenes. In one terrifically staged scene, the set is divided and the same wooden table and captain's chairs serve as the Griffin's kitchen table and Aunt Chris' dining room table at the same time. Mandi Johnson and Samantha Kuhn Staneart paired up on the costuming, with the brilliant touch of Helen's too-tight mail carrier uniforms making visible how uncomfortable her life is. Jacob M. Davis (sound), Julia Carlis (lighting) and Abbee Warmboe (props, including the fabled lawn chair) complete the top-flight (no pun intended) design team.
Up: The Man in the Flying Chair should not be mistaken for a documentary about the flight and life of the real Larry Waters. That is not the point. The fact that such an unlikely incident occurred gives the play a foothold in reality, but what it really is about is the cost of falling too deeply into a life of dreams, both for the dreamer and those standing by, at risk of being drawn into the abyss if they take the dreamer's hand. As the play ends, we know how things turn out for Walter but are left to imagine how Helen and Mikey will carry on, or for that matter, how Maria will manage the reality of motherhood, so unlikely to live up to her idealized notions. The last scene brings us back to the moment of Walter's big success, which seems infantile after being eyewitness to how it has unspooled. Perhaps the take-away is to choose our dreams carefully. Consider if we seek a blazing moment in the sky or a course to carry us throughout our lives.
Up: The Man in the Flying Chair is a Theatre Pro Rata production presented at Park Square Theatre's Boss Stage through June 11, 2017. 20 West Seventh Place, Saint Paul, MN, 55102. Tickets: $40.00 - $60.00; age 30 and under: $21.00; seniors age 62: $5.00 discount; military: $10.00 discount; rush tickets: $24.00 cash only starting one hour before performance for remaining seats. For tickets and information call 651-291-7005 or go to theatreprorata.org.
Writer: Bridget Carpenter; Director: Carin Bratlie Wethern; Costume Design: Mandi Johnson and Samantha Kuhn Staneart; Lighting Design: Julia Carlis; Sound Design: Jacob M. Davis; Properties Design: Abbee Warmboe; Illustrator: Max Lindorfer; Movement Coach: Mark Benzel; Stage Manager: Clara Costello; Assistant Director: Sofia Lindgren Galloway
Cast: Mark Benzel (Philippe Petit and others), Shanan Custer (Helen Griffin), Lillie Horton (Maria), John Middleton (Walter Griffin), Keegan Robinson (Mikey Griffin), Noë Tallen (Aunt Chris/Helen's mother).