GOD BLESS THE Wright brothers: Wilbur, who preached the gospel to the chickens as a child; and little Orville, who broke his brother's head with a fistful of silver dollars. There they are onstage, in one scene slamming a proto-plane into the windy hills of North Carolina, in the next, bickering as schoolboys in Ohio over a bicycle race. As the local theater season draws to a close beneath an avalanche of sugarplum fairies and ethically renewed Scrooges, The Refreshment Committee Theatre Company stages a less seasonal tribute to Mother, God and Country in the premiere of Arthur Giron's Gifts.
As led by Milton, a door-to-door frontier minister, the Wright family subsists on faith. Faith in God, women's suffrage, and the 14th Amendment. Faith in industry and ingenuity. Faith in each other and the sanctity of the family. Faith in the United States Postal Service. But it's mother Susan who knows best, training daughter Katherine in scholarship, the boys in tinkering, and spinning an aphorism for all occasions ("It takes a long time to learn to live"). At any moment, someone is spouting gratitude to universe and nation. No blessing is too small to recognize: "Thank God for Katherine's library card," she says. Thank God for all our library cards!
However intrusively heartwarming it may seem at times, Gifts has more moral complexity than the shoebox diorama of the Kitty Hawk flight I sculpted from pipe cleaners in the third grade. But while I got a check-plus from Ms. Spellman on the project, Giron (who last wrote the acclaimed Edith Stein) probably only deserves a check for his effort. I don't mean to imply that Gifts could have been written by a 9-year-old, but that it might have been produced for one. Like children's theater, Gifts is least convincing when it confronts the unseemly extremities of human behavior; in a rare acting deficiency, the cast appears uncomfortable depicting disagreement. They might collectively benefit from a few sessions of assertiveness training.
The fact that Orville and Wilbur's plane will be in the air by the end of act two is a forgone conclusion. As such, the themes of Gifts resemble a series of rhetorical questions. Do hard work, sacrifice and perseverance pay off in the long run? Is the imagination capable of transforming setbacks into advances? Can an encouraging family overcome discord and austerity to change the course of modern history? Don't bother answering those questions; simply place your right hand across your chest and repeat after me: I pledge allegiance, to the flag...
Last I checked, though, cynicism was not yet considered a virtue. The notion that Gifts is out of step with our era of knee-jerk hero-slaying is not all bad. The possibility exists (and it is a real one) that Giron's civics-lesson-cum-script, based on extensive archival research, presents the preternaturally wholesome Wright family as they were. In this light, Giron's aversion to contemporary sensibilities is a relief: Would we rather learn, for instance, that preacher papa fondled his young flyboys in places the bathing suit should cover? While Giron includes a few tepid conflicts--the Reverend is often absent, Wilbur skittish, Orville envious, and Katherine half-invisible--the only real dysfunction the play locates is our own pronounced (and unfulfilled) appetite for the sordid. The core decency of the Wrights is an admirable thing, as is the playwright's willingness to allow events to emerge without either easy depravity or cheap villainy. While ripe for ridicule, this is not a rotten play.
Still, the Wrights are often too virtuous to bear. Susan asks Katherine "How do you get out of bed in the morning--what do you look forward to?" Daughter diligently answers: "Going to college someday." We are being inculcated with Common Sense and sometimes it feels abusive. At one point the Wright family circle-up and offer their lives to the Lord in the stead of the convalescent Wilbur. Take me, take me, take me! The net effect is not unlike watching an entire episode of The Simpsons featuring the goody-two-shoes Flanders: sometimes interesting, often nauseating.
Yet, however tempting that television analogy may be, what's really missing from Gifts is an acting anchor along the lines of Michael Landon (still hooked on phonics from beyond the grave) or flower child Merlin Olson--someone willing to artlessly exploit a period drama for its basest value as secular parable. With some creative casting and subtle repackaging, Gifts might recognize its potential as a back-to-basics syndicated series: Little Plane on the Prairie. CP
Gifts runs through December 23 at the Seventh Place Theater, in downtown St. Paul; call 227-3157 for tickets and showtimes.