Sometimes a theater company can lift the quality of a play beyond its source material, adding nuances where none have been written, fleshing out two-dimensional characters with strong, vivid performances. But normally, actors are too respectful of a script — no matter what its quality — to truly improve it.
Bridget Carpenter’s Up is slim on plot, heavy on metaphor, and lacking in conflict. Since it’s supposed to deal with the tiffs, tensions, and disappointments of domestic life, lack of conflict is a definite downer. Thankfully, PURE Theatre uses colorful visuals, natural acting, and a light touch to raise the entertainment quotient. Not all of it flies, but there are enough magic moments in this production to make it worth seeing.
Director Sharon Graci uses a few strong, affecting colors to set the tone of the play. The backdrop, stage, and drapes are all sky blue. Shelves are mounted on the back wall, holding red cups and other crockery. A table and chairs are enough to indicate a kitchen area. This is where the Griffin family gathers, their wishes unfulfilled, their household roles about to be shaken up completely.
Helen Griffin is the main wage earner of the family, a postal worker who once took pride in her work. Now she’s marking the years left till she retires. Walter is her stay-at-home husband, an inventor who cares more about his gadgets than his bank balance. The pressure is starting to show, as he hasn’t produced a newsworthy device in 16 years — and that was a one-off, a lawn chair carried aloft by helium balloons.
Mikey is their awkward 15-year-old son who hates high school and has no friends until he meets Maria, a pregnant teen with a forthright view on everything. Mikey is introduced to Maria’s Aunt Chris, who has a barely legal office supply business. Mikey starts selling equipment for her and earning some serious wages.
As the brave Helen, Cristy Landis has an essential role in the play. She’s the ever-dependable lynchpin of the family, the working stiff funding her husband’s dream work. By the time we meet her, she’s losing her patience, so Landis is tasked with balancing commitment with increased irritation.
R.W. Smith is a great everyman, portraying Walter as an amiable dreamer who wants to please his wife without conforming to the traditional stereotype of hubby-as-breadwinner. When his mind starts to disintegrate, Smith is believable, sympathetic, and unpredictable.
Some of the most memorable scenes in the play are between Smith and Rodney Lee Rogers, who embodies Walter’s heroic fantasy, French tightrope walker Philippe Petit. The Frenchman fuels Walter’s unorthodoxy with bon mots like “a bird does not need a wallet.” Like Petit, Rogers makes his art look effortless, exuding confidence and playfulness that’s perfect for the character.
The younger actors aren’t quite as relaxed, but Jon Raz van Pinxteren does a good job of playing a more assured Mikey in the second act of the play, when he’s become a successful seller for Aunt Chris. His boss is a fun character, whether she’s reading tarot cards, boot scootin’ to “Folsom Prison Blues,” or bumming around in her nightgown. Tara Denton is careful not to exaggerate Chris’ traits, giving a louche, unpretentious performance.
As Maria, Carly Sumner Ridgeway has one of the toughest jobs in the show. On several occasions her character reminds us that she’s pregnant when the evidence is as plain as the bump on her belly. In one scene she recites French words relating to flight and descent. In another unsubtle moment, she tells us that being in love made her feel floaty. Still, Ridgeway does well with what she has.
In effect the playwright is walking her own high wire, balancing between an insightful look at the human condition and cheesy flying motifs. But she never falls, and the PURE pros stabilize the play when it wobbles.
Graci continues to incorporate strong, emotionally powerful visuals right up to the end. Hers is the best balancing act of all — she stays true to the text without falling for its cloud-hopping metaphors. The results are — dare we say it? — uplifting.