A stellar cast drives Bristol Riverside Theatre’s production of Up.
Playwright Bridget Carpenter has developed into one of American theater’s freshest and most original dramatists. With plays like the fabulously provocative The Faculty Room, which received a rambunctious production from Flashpoint Theatre Company in 2007, she has earned her place with modern theater’s elite. But none of her previous work approaches the quirky elegance of Up, her poignant drama currently playing at Bristol Riverside Theatre.
The play (unrelated to the award-winning Pixar film) focuses on a family in a California suburb. Mikey (the excellent Jonathan Silver) is getting ready to start his sophomore year in high school. His mother, Helen (an appropriately distraught Michelle Eugene), spends her days lugging packages door-to-door as a mail carrier. Mikey’s father Walter (Benjamin Lloyd) faces no such drudgery, though. An inventor, Walter spends his days trying to rediscover the mix of inspiration and execution that led to his greatest invention, a flying lawn chair.
Most people don’t pursue their dreams—if they even realize them—but Walter fulfilled his very early in life.
Fifteen years before the play occurs, Walter strapped 40 helium-filled weather balloons to the family lawn chair and took off into the wild blue yonder. After reaching a remarkable altitude of more than 15,000 feet, he shot several balloons with a pistol and eased himself back to Earth. The feat was witnessed by scores of people and Walter found his 15 minutes of fame with newspaper coverage and television appearances. The Smithsonian even contacted him in the hope of adding his aerodynamic chair to their collection.
Unfortunately, Walter is unable to duplicate his success and with each failed invention his depression (and the family’s debt) grows.
Portrayed terrifically by Lloyd, Walter is fascinating enough to carry an entire play. However, what makes Up so compelling is that Carpenter focuses the story on the entire family, especially the couple’s son, Mikey, whose friendship with a new classmate, Maria (Laura C. Giknis in a sparkling performance), captures our imagination.
Pregnant and single, Maria is a smart, confident chatterbox who studies French in a state where half the residents speak Spanish. Mikey, on the other hand, is shy and unsure of himself. He finds his calling, which is selling office supplies by phone for Maria’s psychic aunt (the fabulous Jo Twiss). Unlike his father, Mikey has a keen business sense and is soon making a small fortune. But in Up, financial success comes at a high price.
Carpenter based Up on the true story of Larry Walters, who soared among the clouds in a flying lawn chair in 1982. Unable to repeat his success, Walters shot himself a decade later. Carpenter’s Walter struggles to make his way in a world that defines success in financial terms. Instead of a failure, however, Carpenter presents him as an everyman hero who sacrifices financial stability for more esoteric rewards.
Director Keith Baker’s production balances the play’s mix of comedy and tragedy beautifully and Roman Tatarowicz’s revolving set (a combination of props and scaffolding draped in parachutes) is both magical and functional.
During the play, a tightrope walker (Kyle Driggs) makes his way precariously across a wire above the stage. He serves as a constant reminder of Walter’s attempts to balance the responsibilities of having a family with his desire to follow a dream.
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