Maybe it’s the result of the media constantly telling people they just aren’t good enough — that they need to learn a new language, lose those love handles, bedazzle the hell out of that old blue-jean jacket. For whatever reason, some people simply feel like they aren’t doing enough with their lives. They want more. They want to further their careers, strike it rich, grab the big brass ring. They want to move up in the world.
Playwright Bridget Carpenter’s Up mines this desire and the dissatisfaction that can accompany it. All the characters in the play feel a deep need to rise above their station in life.
Frustrated inventor Walter Griffin (R. W. Smith) wants to recapture the magic moment when he made his lawn chair fly 16,000 feet up in the air 16 years ago, gaining a brief moment of fame. His wife Helen (Cristy Landis), a mail carrier, wants him to be more practical. Their son Mikey (Jon Raz Van Pinxteren) wants wealth and success.
While Walter spends his time planning his next flight, Helen brings home the bacon, needling her husband to earn some dough. Mikey meets pregnant teen Maria (Carly Sumner Ridgeway), a young lady so precocious that she belongs in a Diablo Cody movie. Despite his wife’s niggles, Walter continues to dream, fantasizing visits from tightrope walker Philippe Petit (Rodney Lee Rogers), a name that should be familiar to viewers of the documentary Man on a Wire.
“The scenes with Philippe Petit are very theatrical,” says director Sharon Graci, PURE Theatre co-founder and artistic director. “Most of Bridget Carpenter’s writing is clean. The dialogue is not at all heightened.” In other words, the characters talk like real people instead of poetical creatures of the stage. “It’s not heavy drama,” she adds. “There’s an essence of magic to it, with Walter really wanting to fly.”
Like the recent Pixar movie Up, this play is inspired by truck driver Larry Walters’ 1982 lift-off via helium balloons. He was stuck sky-high for 14 hours before he descended and got caught on power lines (local artists Bob Snead and Seth Gadsden have tried similar experiments with varying results).
Before her stint as a writer/producer on the television series Friday Night Lights, Carpenter took Walters’ much-publicized adventure and developed it as a play with a traditional, linear structure and a solid, universally recognizable conflict — the struggle between the dreamer and the realist. She saw the play as a chance to examine marriage in its idealized and truthful forms.
Don’t expect any high-wire acts or soaring effects in PURE’s version of the show. There’s no way for the company to hang lights in Lance Hall, let alone lift a lawn chair into the air. There are no smoke and mirrors to distract the audience from the acting on stage. PURE can’t create dramatic transitions through lighting — they have to do it with their performances. “There’s nowhere to hide whatsoever in our theater,” says Graci. “There is no fallback. We have to overcome the limitations of our space in creative ways. It’s not easy, but we get down to the business of what the script’s about. It provides a good opportunity to really look at characters and relationships.”
The cast makes the most of Lance Hall’s meager space. “We do use every bit of stage,” Graci explains. “We’ve broken up the action so that it takes part in different parts of theater.”
The key to making Up work is to clarify Walter’s character. Is he an obsessive nut, a Walter Mitty fantasist, or a suburban hero? Whatever PURE decides to do with him, there’s plenty of scope here for intimate scenes, narrative surprises, and instants that will resonate with the audience.
“The characters find themselves investigating their circumstances and the aftermath of their actions,” says Graci. “The ways they relate is a common theme. That’s where we find similarities in our own behavior.”
Although this is a serious play, its subject matter is lighter and more fanciful than some of PURE’s past work. After all, the focal point of the story is a lawn chair that can fly thanks to the help of lots and lots of balloons.
With that in mind, is this the heralding of a new, fluffier side to the theater company?
“Cheering people up is great,” Graci responds, “but it’s not our driving force. We’re more interested in raising the bar consistently.”
It seems that Walter Griffin isn’t the only one with high-flying ambitions. And there’s nothing wrong — or nutty — about that.