There’s quote from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince (a book I have yet to read in full but adore nonetheless) that says, “The most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or touched, they are felt with the heart.” This is the territory that that Theatre Pro Rata’s recent production of Up: The Man in the Flying Chair investigates. So much of what occurs in the play are things that are felt – they may be shown through actions or words, but most of all they provoke an emotional response.
Based upon the story of Larry Waters, who, in 1982 tied weather balloons to a lawn chair and flew into the sky, Walter Griffin (John Middleton) performed a similar feat. Longing to return to that feel of flying and that surge of inventiveness, he spends his days tinkering in the kitchen while his wife Helen (Shanan Custer) slips “help wanted” ads his way and keeps up a mail route in order to pay the bills. Their only child, Mikey (Keegan Robinson) loathes high school but seems to hate it a little less when on the first day of his sophomore year he meets new student Maria (Lillie Horton), a feisty, pregnant girl who sees the world a little differently than most. Their lives become intertwined as Maria recovers from a life with an alcoholic mother and deals with perceptions of teen pregnancy (while enjoying the state of it very much, claiming its the best she’s ever felt in her life). Mikey begins working for her aunt Chris (Noe Tallen), striving to find one thing he’s good at.
Forced to get a job to pay the bills, Walter goes off to work each day, but an unsettled tone floats in the air. While famous tightrope walker Philippe Petit (Mark Benzel) appears to motivate him, Walter burns dollar bills and makes extravagant purchases. Yearning for greatness collides with basic needs of living. This story moves from calm beauty to turbulence and, much like flying itself, it’s both beautiful and a little scary.
Middleton and Custer are incredible, tugging and pulling and tearing at the audience’s heartstrings, making it both easy and impossible to see how Walter and Helen ended up together. Robinson and Horton are pitch-perfect in their portrayal of teenagers, to the point that I felt uncomfortable remembering what that level of angst felt like. Tallen brings a wonderful quality to the complicated Aunt Chris, who’s both incredibly trustworthy and terrible deceptive. And with a nice dash of magical realism akin to Amelie or Harvey, Benzel adds a lovely bit of levity along with captivating tightrope walking.
While all design elements are wonderful, with costume design by Mandi Johnson and Samantha Kuhn Staneart, sound design by Jacob M. Davis, lighting design by Julia Carlis, and props design by Abbee Warmboe, I was most taken by the set, which is not built but projected on a backdrop, allowing for it to be erased and blown away like chalk on a blackboard or show a chair with balloons floating in the air. The illustrations are by Max Lindorfer and add an extra level of magic and creative possibility to the atmosphere of the show.
Bittersweet and beautiful, funny and haunting, this show reminds me of my favorite bits of French literature and film. It’s captivating and hits a chord that captures so many different tones of emotion. What’s most wonderful about this show can’t be described so easily because it’s not what I saw onstage, it’s how it made me feel. There were a hundred different emotions I felt myself processing throughout the performance and am still feeling now. This is a wonderful piece for its work with historical fiction. magical realism, and especially all the complicated things the heart feels and yearns to express. If theater’s job (at least one of its jobs) is to help us understand different experiences and different feelings, then this show does exactly that.
Up: The Man in the Flying Chair is written by Bridget Carpenter and directed by Carin Bratlie Wethern. It is playing now through June 11th at Park Square Theatre. Ticket and show information can be found on Theatre Pro Rata’s website or Park Square’s website.