The major characters of Garth Wingfield's new play, Flight, receiving a fine staging from the Melting Pot Theatre Company, rarely appear on stage. Most of them bought a ticket and are sitting in the audience. This is a play about public obsessions; the people we choose to be famous and admired, and what we expect from them.
Imagine an Oscar-winning actress appearing on a late-night talk show and refusing to answer questions about her personal life or tell amusing anecdotes about her co-stars, preferring to discuss the acting technique she used to create her character and how she and her fellow artists collaborated to bring out important themes in the screenplay. Would the public care? Imagine an organization promoting a social or political cause respectfully declining the offer of a star athlete to be their spokesperson, preferring to go with an expert in the field. Would enough people listen?
The increased velocity of communication that spread throughout the 20th Century created the possibility of instant celebrity. People who did extraordinary things suddenly had a world-wide audience that wanted to know every detail of their personal lives. They were offered astonishing sums of money to tell the public what cereal to eat or what car to drive. And still today they are especially valuable in American politics, as candidates try to associate themselves with famous people who are already beloved by the voters.
"I'm not Al Jolson!", insists Charles Lindbergh (Gregg Edelman), as the playwright envisions him being interviewed by a New York Times reporter (brian d'Arcy James) only hours after completing his historic solo flight from New York to Paris. "Lucky Lindy", as he hated to be called, insisted that the big story was really the technological advancements made by the people who built his airplane, The Spirit of St. Louis. So meticulous was their work that the flight itself was uneventful. Wingfield shows Lindbergh as a man who considered himself as only a part of the team that made the flight possible. But with a public starved for heroes, the truth doesn't necessarily make good copy, and he's tricked into allowing the story to be puffed up into fictionalized melodrama.
Suspicious of the media and wanting a quiet life, Lindbergh and his wife, Anne (Kerry O'Malley), secure their privacy as best they can, until that infamous day when their infant son is kidnapped and they find that using the press and radio broadcasts is their best hope to see their baby alive again. Surely there were other families in equally tragic circumstances, but his celebrity gave him an advantage and his loss became the concern of the entire country; so much so that the couple receives letters from mothers offering their own infants as replacements.
His celebrity also made it possible for him to meet with world leaders wanting to bestow him with honors. A decoration received from Germany's Nazi government, coupled with Lindbergh's stated believe in American neutrality during what would become World War II, became the subject of negative editorials, and when his opinions regarding the situation with European Jews was interpreted as hate speech, the most beloved man in America had become villainized.
Wingfield makes it clear in his program notes that Flight is not intended to be a strict factual biography of Charles Lindbergh. Though rooted in history, events and people are rearranged and in some cases come from the author's imagination. The play's strength comes from its depiction of a person's life becoming dominated by the fame he never asked for.
Under Nick Corley's swift and efficient direction, the story is told on a mostly bare stage with a small ensemble popping in and out of quick scenes. Sky blue panels make the set by Michael Deegan and Sarah Conly resemble an airplane hanger, and they often use it as a projection screen to flash archival newspaper headlines and photos, along with Brian Kim's video projections. Gregg Edelman infuses the central character with a good-natured folksy earnestness and charm. It's a quality New York theatre-goers are accustomed to seeing from him and is most appropriate here. Similarly, brian d'Arcy James, playing a character that represents the media in general, is the type of hard-boiled, slick-talker he does so well. Kerry O'Malley is sympathetic in the stereotypical role of the supportive wife who is eventually forced to speak her mind when her man starts to self-destruct. Andrew Polk, Rex Young and Victoria Mack all do well in an assortment of roles.
Why should we care about the personal lives of those that entertain us or achieve great accomplishments? Why do we expect them to be perfect role models? Why should we care about their opinions on matter that have nothing to do with their fields of expertise? Flight doesn't answer these questions, but asks us to consider the flesh and blood face that accompanies media-created celebrity.
Photo by Nick Andrews: Kerry O'Malley, Gregg Edelman and brian d'Arcy James