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What's New on the Rialto

Garth Wingfield and Kerry O'Malley
on Flight

By Beth Herstein

Kerry O'Malley, Gregg Edelman and Brian D'Arcy James
Charles Lindbergh was a controversial and complicated figure. Originally, he was internationally celebrated when in 1927, at the age of 25, he became the first person to make a successful solo transatlantic flight. A few years later he married Anne Morrow, the daughter of a diplomat; in 1930 their son Charles A. Lindbergh, Jr., was born. Subsequently, in 1932, Charles Jr., then 20 months old, was kidnaped. The tragedy captured the public's attention and sympathy. Ultimately, the child was found dead and Bruno Richard Hauptmann was arrested for the kidnaping and murder. The Lindbergh Laws were passed in 1932; among other things, these laws made it possible to impose death sentences on kidnapers who crossed state lines. Hauptmann was tried under these laws, convicted of the crime and executed.

In the years before the United States entered World War II, Lindbergh's reputation began to worsen. In 1937 he accepted an honorary medal from the Nazi government in Germany, engendering criticism when, a short time thereafter, word of the increasing number of anti-Semitic activities in Germany began to spread. Then, in 1940, an isolationist group called America First formed; its avowed goal was to keep America out of the European War. Lindbergh's comments on behalf of the group and in support of the stance on nonintervention, coupled with his earlier acceptance of the medal and statements suggesting that he admired Germany, led many to view Lindbergh as a Nazi sympathizer. Finally, in 1941, Lindbergh gave a speech which cemented this belief; among other things, he called American Jews "dangerous" because of their "large ownership of and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio and our Government." When the United States entered the war, Lindbergh dropped his non-interventionist stance and volunteered his services to the country. Lindbergh never apologized for his anti-Semitic or noninterventionist statements, however. Today, opinion regarding Lindbergh's views toward Germany and the depth of his anti-Semitism is mixed.

Lindbergh lived until 1974, but the critical period above is the focus of Flight, a new play by Garth Wingfield. Wingfield is the author of two earlier works: Dating Games (a collection of short plays) and Are We There Yet? He also served as writer for the television series Clueless, and he worked on several episodes of the Showtime series Queer as Folk. For his current show, which is produced by the Melting Pot Theatre Company, Wingfield has assembled a talented cast led by Gregg Edelman as Charles Lindbergh and Kerry O'Malley as Anne Morrow Lindbergh. Recently, I spoke to Wingfield and O'Malley about the show.

Beth Herstein:  A lot of the play focuses on Lindbergh's relationship with the media and the impact of the media on his life. Were you drawn to the idea of writing about the media first, or about Lindbergh?

Garth Wingfield:  It started with the idea of Lindbergh. Then, when I started researching, I grew fascinated with the notion that, in a very short period of time, he became the first real media celebrity. And then he had this huge fall because of what he said in the media. It was a very interesting idea, and I thought it could be theatrically realized. So it kind of came as I learned more about it.

BH:  Have you gotten a sense of the audience reaction to the play?

GW:  It's interesting to see what people bring to it. There's a whole generation of people who, the minute you say Lindbergh, have this whole world view of him [and his anti-Semitism] and come to it with that. And, then there are a lot of younger people who know maybe a little about the flight, maybe a little about the kidnaping - or come knowing nothing.

Kerry O'Malley:  And, it differs depending on their age, on their religion, on where they grew up. Some people think it's a play about an anti-Semite, and some people think it's a play about an aviator. They bring their own prisms to the show. We touch all of it.

I hope people will not stay away from the play because of their preconceived notions of Lindbergh as an anti-Semite or their fears that this play glorifies an anti-Semite. It doesn't do that at all.

BH:  Have you gotten any negative reactions because of all that?

KO'M:  When we did the reading in Boone, there was a pre-show talk back. Then they came together again after the reading. Beforehand, there were concerns. But, when they came back after the play, they said, "Oh, now we understand."

BH:  Have people drawn any parallels between Lindbergh's isolationism and what's going on now with the war in Iraq?

KO'M:  It's interesting. Last night, there was a big vocal response from the audience when Lindbergh said, "America should not be policing the world."

I think that today, Lindbergh would have been just as anti-Muslim or anti- the masses as he was anti-Semitic then. Anti -- the refugees. He didn't want to take care of the world.

[In that respect,] people agreed with him. Most of America didn't want to get involved with World War II. Something like 80% were isolationists until Pearl Harbor. So, he wasn't alone. The America First movement was really strong. Which is what I think Philip Roth was saying [in his recent novel The Plot Against America, which posits an alternate history in which Lindbergh defeats Roosevelt as President]. It's not as far off of an idea as you think it is. It could happen here. Of course, in that book there are really good people in Middle America, too. People who come to the rescue.

BH:  What do you want people to walk away from the play with?

GW:  I'm not sure. Lindbergh, as a human being, was such an interesting and tragically flawed character. And, that to me was what was so interesting about him.

KO'M:  I think he's a fascinating man because what made him into a hero was what was also his downfall. He listened to his own compass. He told them what kind of plane to build, exactly what was going to make it, why the other planes weren't working. People thought he was crazy to fly across the Atlantic in that flimsy little plane. But, he proved himself right. If he had listened to anyone else, he never would have made the flight to Paris.

Later in life he didn't know how to listen to other people. During the lead-up to World War II, he trusted himself —and he was wrong. But, he had no life experience to tell him not to trust himself. What was courage and bravery in one situation is what was pig-headed in another.

It's sad. He was a deeply flawed and profoundly interesting and challenging man. A man who really was created by the events around him. Who knows what he would have been like if his child hadn't been kidnaped. The play definitely allows you to get a peek into his humanity. He was not a monster. He was a guy who said some stupid things and believed some things that we now believe and feel are reprehensible. But, he's a human being - and he was created into a godlike figure.

BH:  Not of his own doing.

KO'M:  Right. And, that's what happens. When we make gods out of men, they fail us.

GW:  That's also exactly how the media treated the crime. It wasn't just a kidnaping; it was "The Crime of the Century." It was the story that everyone wanted to know about. But he never wanted to be famous. He was very adamant that fame was the last thing he wanted from all of this. There were other people who were trying for the Orteig Prize [$25,000 offered by prominent New York businessman Raymond Orteig for the person who made the first nonstop flight from New York to Paris ] who did want to be famous and did want to be heroes. But, he was doing it because he wanted to design a plane that could do it. That led to his fame, which led to his son being kidnaped.

BH:  I can relate to that as a writer, and I'm sure you both can because of your involvement in theater. You have to be driven to do your work by things other than fame. Though, I guess some people are driven by the desire for fame.

KO'M:  Yes. There are people who want to be actors, and people who want to be stars. Lindbergh didn't want to be a star.

GW:  It's interesting too —I started writing this play in the late '90s, before all the reality TV stuff happened. Today, there is a trend where there are all these people who do want to be famous ... and so the whole notion of fame is more relevant now than ever, with all these people grasping for fame, actively wanting to be famous.

KO'M:  I see it all the time when I talk to young drama students who want to jump right to the end without doing any of the work to get there. They don't want to do any of the work of learning, they just want to be on TV. Lindbergh, on the other hand, was definitely interested in the craft. In the getting there and planning it. He was a guy who did it alone. Other people built the plane, but to his specifications.

BH:  The play also draws some interesting parallels. His later isolationism is connected to his status as a loner.

KO'M:  He's the son of Midwestern parents. The father was absent most of his life, and was emotionally absent. The mother was kind of repressed. So, this is a kid who is out hunting, spending a lot of time alone. He learned very early to rely on himself and not to trust or need anyone else.

GW:  And, this defines his whole life.

KO'M:  His father was an isolationist in World War I. Sometimes it's hard to shed the ideas of your parents. And, he believed it too. He's like a frontiersman, sort of. He knew how to do everything. How to fish and fix machinery. He was very practical and hands-on and very self reliant.

BH:  [To KO'M] Did you know a lot about Lindbergh to begin with?

KO'M:  I knew probably what most people of my generation know. A little about the kidnaping and about the Lindbergh Laws. I knew vaguely of him having an isolationist stance in World War II. And, I knew about the flight. But, I did a lot of research for the play.

BH:  What did you learn about Anne Morrow Lindbergh?

KO'M:  I read all of her stuff. I think she's a wonderful, brilliant, soulful and tremendously gifted writer. You can't tell the story of either of them without the other. She is the writer she is because she married Charles Lindbergh. And, she is really important in his life as well. She was his co-pilot and his radio operator. She did all the major routes when they were setting out routes over the North Atlantic and all over the world. She was with him. So, she was a fairly accomplished aviator on her own. She never would have done that if it weren't for him. But, her best and most loved work, Gift from the Sea, would never have been written had she not married him. Her story adds so much to this play. They were sort of yin and yang. She's the emotional and he's the rational. They're fascinating people.

GW:  In the development of the play - and Kerry did a workshop and a bunch of readings over the past couple of years - that's the part of the play that's developed the most. Telling her story and, especially in the second act, making that a much richer, deeper part of the play. A lot of that is because Kerry is such a wonderful actor. And, what she said really is true. It really is their story.

KO'M:  Garth gave me all this wonderful stuff to work with, especially in the second act. It is really interesting to see her point of view. To see a man's fall, and also to see it through the eyes of the woman who loves him. Because, then you can't separate yourself from him onstage the same way you could otherwise.

BH:  I agree. In the parts of the show where you address Lindbergh's isolationist positions - and he makes statements that are very disturbing - to have her there helps to ...

GW:  To humanize him.

KO'M:  And what Garth does so well is to allow her to state her case, but keep it in that sense of time and period and decorum. Anne Morrow Lindbergh was The Wife. Lindbergh was clearly the alpha in the relationship. He still manages to allow her to say what she needed to say, but in a way that she hopes he can hear. [To GW] You really navigated that so beautifully.

GW:  Why, thank you.

BH:  You've said that it was a more collaborative process when you were working for television, but you seem to have a real collaboration here.

GW:  This has been wonderfully collaborative. In fact, the TV work I did was more isolated because the production wasn't even where I was. I met only around half of the actors. Here, I will write something and we'll go into the rehearsal room and talk about it, and if it's not right I'll fix it. That's what it's all about.

KO'M:  Garth and I and Nick [Corley, the director] have all been involved with it for a while. So, we've developed enough of a sense of trust that that kind of work is easily done. On some shows, rewrites can become turf wars. Definitely not on this one.

GW:  You guys are also very respectful. I trust your instincts when you say, "This doesn't feel right," or "This is not working right."

KO'M:  Which I rarely do.

BH:  [To GW] Your prior work seems to be based in more contemporary times. Was the process of writing this show dramatically different?

GW:  Yeah, it was dramatically different. I usually write contemporary, lighter comedies. There are similarities in the structural ideas I've used. One difference now is that, because there are not a whole lot of laughs in it, it's hard to tell whether the audience is with you.

KO'M:  The other night in the dressing room, somebody was saying, "Just because people aren't laughing doesn't mean it's not a good show." With a comedy you know instantly if it's not working, but with a drama you don't. You do know if they're quiet. If there is a lot of coughing or rustling or unwrapping of candies, you know you're not holding their attention. But, comedies you know if it's working. In musicals too, because they clap.

BH:  [To KO'M] I saw you in the musical Into the Woods, which was wonderful. What was that experience like?

KO'M:  It was terrific. It's a great gift of a show. I am a huge Sondheim fan, so to get to do Sondheim on Broadway was just the greatest. And, James Lapine is so wonderful and has been so good to me. I knew Gregg [Edelman] before that, but I got to work with him in Into the Woods. Which is great because doing this, we have a shorthand.

BH:  I didn't see you perform in the Encores! production of Promises, Promises, but I heard you do a number from the show ["Knowing When to Leave"] in one of the Encores! Bashes. I was so disappointed that I had missed the production itself, because I grew up listening to the eight-track of that show and would have loved to have seen it.

KO'M:  That was an amazing show. Rob Marshall did an amazing job, and Martin Short was incredible. Christine Baranski was great, and the dancers were astonishing. It was a blast.

It was harder to sing that song at the Bash, because it's so emotionally tied to the moment it comes out of. So, when you do it in a concert like that, it feels like, "Ok, so I'm doing my showstopper." But, that's not how I work. I like doing musicals and singing in the midst of the scene. It's hard for me to sing it out of context. It's not hard for many people, but it is hard for me.

BH:  So you prefer to perform with a narrative?

KO'M:  Yes, and with a character.

BH:  You wouldn't want to perform in a cabaret, then.

KO'M:  No. It doesn't hold any interest for me.

BH:  I also read that you're working on a series for Showtime.

KO'M:  Yeah. It's called Brotherhood currently, though the title might change. It starts shooting in July. It's about Irish American gangsters and politicians. And, I'm the sister of a politician. It's a drama, kind of like The Sopranos or The West Wing. It's very exciting.

BH:  Your brother [Mike O'Malley] is also an actor. You've done some work with him, right?

KO'M:  I have. He had a series on NBC in 1999 that I appeared on. He's been on [the sitcom] Yes, Dear on CBS since 2000. He has a movie coming out soon, also, The Perfect Man with Heather Locklear and Hilary Duff. I've done a play of his as well - he's a wonderful playwright. And, just a terrific actor and a great brother.

BH:  You have two other siblings who are not involved in show business.

KO'M:  My brother Liam is in web stuff, I guess is the easiest way to say it. And my sister is in the fitness industry. She certifies personal trainers.

BH:  [To GW] I read that you're on the editorial board of Zoetrope magazine [a literary magazine started by Francis Ford Coppola]. How did you get involved with that?

GW:  I knew the woman who was the founding editor in chief [Adrienne Brodeur]. They were looking for someone with a theater background because they publish plays occasionally, though it's mostly a fiction magazine. It's been interesting.

BH:  How much of your time does Zoetrope take?

GW:  It used to be a lot. We used to meet every two weeks. But, the magazine moved its base to San Francisco about a year and a half ago, and now they send us the stories and plays they're thinking about publishing every month. It's interesting to be on the other side, and see why certain works get picked and others don't. There would be plays that I would fight for that wouldn't get picked, but I'd also get to see why that happened.

KO'M:  It's like sitting in on auditions and seeing how someone could give a brilliant audition and not get the job.

GW:  Exactly. And, then you find out that there is a really good reason that it didn't happen. Not because the other person was better but because of any number of things. You feel better actually.

BH:  [To KO'M] You did a reading of The Children's Hour recently.

KO'M:  Yes, up in Boston at the Wang Center.

BH:  Was that a one-time thing?

KO'M:  Yes. They have a reading series there, and they bring in guest artists. They just did A Soldier's Play. Last year, Denis O'Hare did Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The guy directing the show was someone I went to graduate school with. They lost somebody at the last minute, so he called me and I went up and did it. It was great fun. It was during a snow storm and the Patriots' playoff game, so I sat in my hotel room watching football. [laughter]

BH:  So, you're a big sports fan?

KO'M:  I'm a big Red Sox fan. I watch the Patriots during the playoffs. I watched a lot of basketball at Duke, but I'm not so interested in professional basketball. Baseball, though, I could watch all day every day. I'm a bit of a baseball geek.

BH:  [To GW] What are your future projects? Are you staying focused on theater?

GW:  Yes. I'm working on a play that I've done readings of. It's very different. It's a romantic comedy. And, there are other things that I have in various phases of writing or being rewritten.

BH:  Before we wrap up, what else do you think people should know about the show?

GW:  I'm really proud of the work that Nick Corley has done with the show. You really do get a sense of the media. There's a radio playing at one point, and there are video projections. There's a sense of the grandness of the world of the play, which I'm particularly proud of. It's also a dream cast. All six of these people are absolutely wonderful.

KO'M:  The play is about so much. It's about a marriage, it's about grief, it's about the media, it's about fame, it's about America, it's about war. It's about the fall of a hero. It's the kind of play that people come to see and want to talk about afterwards. Sometimes you leave a show and it's like cotton candy - it doesn't stay with you. There are other shows where you can't wait to go out for coffee afterwards and talk about it. Everyone I know who's seen the show says it makes them feel like that. It also makes you want to go out and read more about these people. I think that's rare these days. It's a real meal. People will really get a lot out of it.

Through June 19
Lucille Lortel Theater, 121 Christopher Street (Between Bleecker and Bedford Streets)
Schedule and Tickets: TicketCentral

Photo: Nick Andrews

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