Thursday, December 12, 2013

Up (The Man in the Flying Chair) by Mother Road Theatre Company

December theatre options are usually seasonal fares -- Nutcrackers and plays about Santa, or Scrooge -- but for those wanting something a little different for their theatre experience, "Up (The Man in the Flying Chair)" provides it. Currently playing at the Musical Theatre Southwest Center for the Arts, this is not the Disney-fied "Up," with a lovable curmudgeon. This is a lot grittier.

Set in 1989, the dialogue between the Griffins is modernly authentic and, along with the dynamic of the family, it draws you into their tale. Perhaps director Vic Browder knew it would feel like two hours of eavesdropping, because the cast as a whole seem exquisitely aware of how easy it would be to over-act these roles and so they are slightly underplayed, and more believable as a result. In an intimate space such as the MTS Black Box, even a whiff of melodrama would spoil this play's impact. Father and wannabe inventor Walter Griffin, played by Shangreaux Lagrave, is the frustrated dreamer, full of big ideas yet unable to make anything of his ambitions to help him succeed. Amy Suman plays Walter's wife, Helen, who is frustrated beyond measure with her husband's inability to take responsibility and provide for their family, choking on her own buried rage at times, yet she never stops loving her husband.

Their 15 year old son Mikey, played by Grey Blanco, is caught in the middle, supportive of his father's dreams but also old enough to see his mother's dissatisfaction, and wonder why his father can't do better for himself. When Mikey hooks up with pregnant teenager Maria, played by Amy Bourque, his own coming-of-age tale begins to unfold, while his father's life simultaneously begins to dramatically unravel.

Lagrave's performance as Walter has a touch of Willie Lomax to it, that sense of time slipping away and opportunities that never return, haunting and baffling the central character. Lagrave knows how to oscillate between Walter's bombastic moments, as well as his deflated ones. Commendable in her ability to sustain the rage and intensity of Helen, Suman finds the balance between haranguing and desperation. Bouncing between them, Blanco shows us Mikey's adolescent need to find his own destiny, and make his own way. When he begins to outperform his father, you sense that Mikey has lost the childhood hero that his father once was to him.

The metaphor of being "up," suspended in the sky by floating chair or high wire, calls to Walter after the one event in his life that gave him a sense of purpose and destiny -- the day when he tied weather balloons to a lawn chair to soar to a height of nearly 16,000 feet. The rest of his life is consumed with the "job" of inventing a flying chair, the Paramotor, although every new attempt seems a miserable failure. When Walter sees a picture of tightrope walker Philippe Petit, he exclaims, "There's a man who's living his dreams!" And when describing having a job to his son, Walter equates it to being "tied down," and "picking up someone else's shit."

The dream-like scenes where Petit appears to Walter are perhaps some of my favorite moments in this show. Lit in a hallucinatory purple light, actor Ron Weisberg takes his tightrope walks while philosophically talking to Walter about the meaning of life, and later, we see Mikey on the high wire with Petit, symbolically living his own teenage dreams, even though convoluted and not fully formed. These moments evolve the play from an ordinary family drama (a la Neil Simon but with more dysfunction and less humor) and into something more magical and otherworldly.

Perhaps the most inscrutable character in the show is Maria herself. Caught in the circumstances of her dysfunctional family life with her aunt (Staci Robbins) as certainly as Mikey is caught within his, Maria's emotions vacillate between a street smart fast talker, and a vulnerable, unwed mother-to-be. Bourque sells the drama pitch perfect, allowing the audience to decide by the end if Maria is a willing perpetrator of Mikey's downfall. ("Downfall," a show like this makes one realize how often "up" and "down" are deeply ingrained human metaphors).

If this premise seems quasi-biographical, it is. Although more recent lawn chair launches have been attempted, the most famous is Larry Walters', Lawn Chair Larry, the inspiration behind this Bridget Carpenter play, who launched himself via lawn chair and weather balloons in California in 1982. Also unable to find his way in this world, the real life Walters died some years later by his own hand.

For more about the show, and their upcoming 2014 season, visit the Mother Road Theatre Company website at

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