nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
May 14, 2005
The obvious way to write about a hero is to start at the (hopefully humble) beginning: shy and modest small-town boy has a dream—say, to fly across the Atlantic Ocean, from New York to Paris, without stopping. Throw in some obstacles, even dangers, to overcome (no one's ever done it before, and many have died trying). Then finish triumphantly with success, against all odds and defying all expectation: he lands in Paris, and for a minute the world stops and everybody cheers. Curtain.
As I said, that's the obvious way. Playwright Garth Wingfield isn't interested in obvious, however, which is why his new play Flight is so interesting and so unusual. Subtitled "The rise and fall of Charles Lindbergh," it focuses not on the making of a hero but rather the unmaking of one: the consequences of heroism (and its inevitable metamorphosis into celebrityhood), in a particular place (the U.S.), at a particular time (the second quarter of the 20th century—the age of radio and movies—the moment when mass media was just learning to flex its muscle and become the dominant cultural influence in American life).
Flight starts in 1968, when Lindbergh is near the end of his life, 41 years after his history-making trip. He's visiting a group of astronauts about to take off for the moon, and though one of them tells him that his journey made space travel possible, the bureaucrat in charge of handling visitors doesn't even know who he is. Such is the fleeting nature of fame, then as now.
The play then flashes back to three pivotal points in Lindbergh's career as a public figure. The first is right after that remarkable flight, when he plays the bashful, ingenuous Midwestern kid to the hilt, balking at and then getting taken in by the press, soaking up the excitement and the publicity without really loving it and certainly without understanding it.
He meets Anne Morrow, the shy second daughter of a very rich and influential family, and they fall in love and marry. The story moves rapidly to the next milestone in Lindbergh's story, a few years later, when their son Charles, Jr., is kidnapped and killed. Wingfield once again avoids the obvious angle here, leaving to others the question of whether Bruno Richard Hauptmann really committed the crime; instead, the focus is on a devastating event at once public and private. Would the Lindbergh baby have ever even been kidnapped if Lindbergh weren't so famous? Would the outcome have been different? Who ultimately is responsible for scars on a family that never could heal: the public man, the private man, or the never-satiated media, longing for sensational material? (Did you know there was a popular song about the Lindbergh kidnapping?)
Act Two of Flight takes us to the years preceding World War II, when Lindbergh managed to engineer a fairly spectacular fall from grace by accepting a medal from the Nazi government and then speaking out—after years of shunning the spotlight, mind you—against American involvement in a war with Germany that he was convinced we could not win. It's fascinating and it's true—there are fragments of recordings and newsreels of the real Lindbergh interspersed with the action—and in a way it feels inevitable. Did Lindbergh mean to turn himself into a kind of ruined tragic hero? The arc of Wingfield's play seems to suggest that after sacrificing his personal life and his baby to the media gods, either destiny or hubris or both kicked in and pushed him down a path of self-destruction that served him and his public right.
So Flight feels, by its sad end, almost like Greek tragedy; in fact, it is because Wingfield has withheld so much information about his hero—especially the stuff that drove him toward his destiny in the first place; see paragraph one—that the play feels more abstract and less moralistic than, say, Oedipus Rex. But this is cautionary theatre nonetheless.
I left Flight wanting to know more about Lindbergh, wanting to fill in the play's gaps. What, I wondered, did Lindbergh do for the 40 or so years that he lived after disgracing himself with his apparent pro-Nazi leanings? Is it true that even while he was still alive he sank into obscurity? What do people know about him today?
The Melting Pot Theatre Company has gone to great expense in mounting Flight, enlisting some A-list actors who are all quite fine—Gregg Edelman as the stolid, stubborn, and usually sullen Lindbergh; Brian D'Arcy James as all the reporters who built and then tore down the legend around him; and especially Kerry O'Malley, who is quietly assured and centered as Anne Morrow Lindbergh, whose own tragedy—less public and less grandiose than her husband's—might in many ways be the more enlightening one. I suspect that Melting Pot has overproduced the piece physically: the really nifty abstract unit set by Michael Deegan and Sarah Conly seems to overpower the proceedings much of the time, and I wonder if the use of so much video projection, music, and recorded sound doesn't detract from rather than enhance the power of Wingfield's contemplative story. The trappings seem to aspire to the epic, but Wingfield is resolutely looking the other way here: Flight is the tragedy of a man's brush with glory, not glory's brush with man.