Everyone Knows It's Windy
Ever-admiring of her husband's pioneering spirit but increasingly contemptuous of his overriding ambition, a young wife reacts to one of her mate's first scientific discoveries by murmuring, "In these moments with you, I understand the allure. They say that man was meant for the earth, but I think you are cut from the cloth of the sky." At the exact moment that Ilse Lilienthal speaks those fateful words to her husband, German aviation innovator Otto Lilienthal, the character of Wilbur Wright appears on stage and tries to solve a particularly intricate mechanical problem. As the paths of these inventors and their families continue to crisscross through the rarefied atmosphere of David Schulner's two-hour Disturbed by the Wind, each character is forced to make painful sacrifices in the unflagging pursuit of fragile dreams.
The local premiere of Schulner's two-act drama about men and their flying machines (along with the loved ones who played an incalculable role in the development of both) is being presented at Studio 44 by Denver's HorseChart Theatre Company. Even though a few of director Philip A. Russell's ill-advised staging choices serve to further muddy the drama's byzantine storyline--the Wright brothers' portion of the saga progresses forward in time, while, sometimes simultaneously, the Lilienthals' scenes develop in reverse chronological order--this intriguing production is nonetheless penetratingly real, imaginatively whimsical and cleverly theatrical.
Most of the action in the three-quarter-round space is staged on a simple hardwood floor, which serves as various Ohio and North Carolina locales inhabited by Orville (J.K. Palmer) and Wilbur Wright (Stephen Cosgrove). A few scenes, including the occasional exchange of letters read aloud, take place on two slightly elevated upstage platforms that are partially obscured by audience seating. An eight-foot scaffold located against the back wall of the black-box-type theater serves as a sort of netherworld in which Lilienthal (Matt Saunders) braves the perils of several experimental flights and from which he appears to Wilbur in a couple of his dreams.
The play begins with the daredevil Otto embarking on a dramatic glider flight that, ironically, proves to be his last. A few moments later, Wilbur introduces one of the play's recurring themes when he relates his dream to Orville: Evidently, the ghost of Otto has visited Wilbur and told him that "sacrifices must be made." Soon after that portentous moment, we meet Agnes Osborne (Kelly MacLeod), a hopelessly plain woman who's madly in love with the bashful and awkward Orville. Ever the nervous bachelor, Orville confesses to Agnes that while his interest in women is indeed genuine, such fancies as love and marriage must necessarily take a backseat to his more practical concerns about bicycles and, he utters without a trace of guile, livestock. Undeterred, Agnes relies on her every charm and on the moral support of Orville and Wilbur's sister, Katherine Wright (Jennifer Bledsoe), to win a permanent reprieve from spinsterhood. Meanwhile, Ilse Lilienthal (Karin Waidley) and her two children, Horst (Jeremy Palmer) and Ute (Sarah Maria Lowenstein), do their best to feign interest in Otto's maniacal obsession with flying. But despite their occasionally heartfelt attempts to breach Otto's protective emotional perimeter, the enigmatic pilot resolutely refuses to accord his family more than a fleeting moment's worth of quality time.
To their credit, the cast of talented actors crafts a cavalcade of credible portrayals. MacLeod nearly steals the show with her delightful portrait of the woman who, well aware of her lack of physical beauty, makes it her mission in life to win Orville's heart and mind. Teenage actors Palmer and Lowenstein are touching as the two Lilienthal offspring; the double-cast performers are equally convincing in their bit parts as a pair of American youths who accompany their dentally challenged, know-it-all father, Bill Tate (Donald Ryan), on a trip to meet the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk. J.K. Palmer and Cosgrove initially stumble over their characters' formal, stilted dialogue, which is laden with jarring anachronisms that if historically accurate, prove more irritating than illuminating. Eventually, though, both actors relax into their sympathetically rendered, humorous portraits of America's favorite bicycle repairmen-turned-flyboys. Bledsoe is a technically accomplished actress with a flair for nuance and understatement; her well-crafted sister act shines a few beams of crystal clarity into the drama's more static and murky episodes. And Waidley is affecting as a forsaken and forsaking wife who cares not one whit for her husband's supposed greatness the moment she discovers that their once-indissoluble passion has been eclipsed by a different sort of all-consuming love. "You do not know what you have missed, and you cannot have it back," she pointedly declares to him.
For all of its interesting moments, though, Schulner's drama stays in the relative comfort of a far-removed historical context and often falls short of addressing universal human issues. The playwright has constructed sections of dialogue that hint at but never equal the arch lyricism of, say, Dylan Thomas or Brian Friel. Given Schulner's penchant for overlapping sections of group dialogue and the availability of a treasure trove of the Wrights' own written material, it seems a shame that he hasn't managed to inject his drama with more than a measure or two of soaring poeticism. Even the Wright family patriarch's own words far surpass anything contained in Schulner's loving tribute. In fact, the aging Bishop Wright once wrote that his son Wilbur, who died in 1912 at the age of 45, had enjoyed "a short life, full of consequences. An unfailing intellect, imperturbable temper, great self-reliance and as great modesty, seeing the right clearly, pursuing it steadily, he lived and died." And while a Ken Burns-like documentary approach wouldn't necessarily improve upon Schulner's loosely structured collection of anecdotes and remembrances, you can't help but wonder if the play's themes wouldn't benefit from at least a gossamer's worth of original Wright-like eloquence.
Minor worries aside, HorseChart's season opener is sometimes thought-provoking while at others nervy and innovative--qualities that the Wright brothers, as well as their nearly forgotten hero, Lilienthal, would no doubt appreciate.
Disturbed by the Wind, presented by the HorseChart Theatre Company through October 24 at Studio 44, 2865 West 44th Avenue, 303-458-0755.
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