Gregg Edelman (center), Brian d'Arcy James,and Kerry O'Malley in a publicity shot for Flight
(Photo © Nick Andrews)
Gregg Edelman (center), Brian d'Arcy James,
and Kerry O'Malley in a publicity shot for Flight
(Photo © Nick Andrews)
Bio-plays seem to be all the rage this year. The last month and a half alone has seen the debut of works tackling such real-life figures as writer Djuna Barnes (What of the Night), film siren Anna May Wong (China Doll), and composer/conductor Leonard Bernstein (Score). Each of these shows struggled to maintain a balance between historical accuracy, theatrical innovation, and coherent narrative; none of them did their subject justice. Garth Wingfield's Flight, which traces the rise and fall of aviator Charles Lindbergh, is a decided improvement. While the play isn't perfect, it reveals the complexities of a fascinating historical figure in a compelling way.

Flight centers on Lindbergh's relationship to the press. A private man, Lindbergh was nevertheless thrust into the public eye following his historic 1927 transatlantic flight. He was made into a hero, and his celebrity caused him great personal tragedy while also allowing him access to people and places that would otherwise have been closed off to him. Brian d'Arcy James plays a number of different newsmen whom Lindbergh (played by Gregg Edelman) meets over the years, as well as a sort of imaginary figure with whom Lindbergh talks from time to time outside the bounds of the more historically grounded scenes.

Early in the play, Lindbergh grants a reporter from The New York Times an interview. At first, the aviator is extremely guarded and wants to talk only about the mechanics and engineering that made his flight possible, rather than to take any glory for himself. The reporter appeals to Lindbergh's ambitions and desires, promising that if he allows himself to be made into a hero, a wealth of opportunities will be available to him. The moment in which Lindbergh accedes to the reporter's wishes is nicely played; Edelman projects both hunger and reticence as he seals the Faustian bargain. Of course, Lindbergh almost immediately regrets his decision. The reporter writes the article in the first person, as if Lindbergh himself were the author. The play's Lindbergh complains that this was not what he agreed to, remarking: "If The New York Times can't get my story right, who can I trust?"

The action leaps forward in time in a roughly chronological fashion, with the exception of a framing sequence set in 1968. Historical footage and supertitles announcing the year and/or the subject of the next scene are projected onto the walls of the set. (Both the scenic and projection design are by Michael Deegan and Sarah Conly.) We see the false reports of Lindbergh's death in 1928; his courtship of Anne Morrow (Kerry O'Malley), the ambassador's daughter who becomes his wife; the tragic kidnapping of the couple's first son; Lindbergh's controversial remarks about the Germans in the days leading up to World War II; and more.

As written by Wingfield and performed by Edelman, Lindbergh is an average Joe whose laid-back presence goes hand in hand with feelings of entitlement. While he claims he wants to live a quiet life, he seeks out and takes advantage of the perks allowed him due to his celebrity status, such as gaining a meeting with Rockefeller scientist Dr. Alexis Carrel (Andrew Polk) to form a scientific collaboration. Edelman nicely captures his character's contradictions, although he relies a bit too heavily on external mannerisms to convey Lindbergh's advanced age in the 1968 framing sequence.

O'Malley endows Anne Lindbergh with a quiet strength as well as a deeply felt emotional resonance during the crucial sequence that details the kidnapping of her son. D'Arcy James has a sly, mercurial presence that is fitting for the various reporters he plays. Rounding out the cast are Polk, Rex Young, and Victoria Mack, each playing a number of different characters that come in and out of the Lindberghs' lives.

Director Nick Corley keeps the action moving at a brisk pace without sacrificing stylistic innovation. The staging of the kidnapping, for instance, has a noir-ish feel. It starts out with testimony from the baby's nurse and parents, all of whom speak into standing microphones set up by a man in a police uniform. This brilliantly demonstrates the overlap between giving police deposition and radio interviews about the crime. At one point, Lindbergh starts to talk up the merits of his wife's writing, as if to give her a plug on a program that's meant to focus on the kidnapping; in a strangled voice, Anne tells him that his remarks are inappropriate at this time.

The play does not shy away from showing Lindbergh in an unflattering light, particularly in his praise of Germans and his acceptance of the Order of the German Eagle from Nazi leader Hermann Goring. Speeches in which Lindbergh argued that America should stay out of the war turned the public against him, and the media -- which once couldn't get enough of him -- kept its distance thereafter.

Sound designer Jill B.C. Du Boff deserves praise for the way that the various microphones create a period feel and for the intermingling of sound clips of Lindbergh's actual radio addresses. Jeff Nellis's lighting creates the appropriate mood for each sequence, and Daryl A. Stone's costumes are likewise nicely rendered.

Not everything in the play works; the framing sequence is contrived, and Lindbergh's final speech feels a little cheesy. But Flight is largely successful, showing both the man and the myth that was Charles Lindbergh and how he was both defined and damned by living under public scrutiny.