Natural High

Disturbed by the Wind
Hidden Theatre

The metaphor at work in Hidden Theatre's new play, Disturbed by the Wind, is so obvious that one ought to tip one's hat to its playwright, David Schulner--either for his nerve or his naïveté. In other hands this play, the story of the Wright brothers, might have come off as merely inspirational fluff, the kind of "tastes good--and good for you!" stuff of which big, dumb historical movies are made. And in a few places the piece almost feels like an earnest educational show at the Great American History Theatre.

But this is not theater for history's sake: It's theater for theater's sake, for character's sake, for idea's sake. Naturally, the play is about more than these brothers: The flying machine created in Disturbed by the Wind is a vehicle for that most American of themes, the single-minded pursuit of beautiful, absurd visions. Can you possibly think of a more clichéd symbol for lofty ambition than, well, flying? The eagle is our national icon, for Christ's sake. How does one approach this kind of story with any degree of subtlety, much less originality?

Apparently by not thinking about it. Schulner says he set out to write a play about the Wrights and didn't recognize the play's metaphorical life until several months after finishing the script. And true to this spirit, we don't feel beaten over the head by the deeper significance of an airplane propeller: This really is a play about the Wright brothers, about designing lightweight engines and calculating "wind coefficients" (whatever those are). The play's subtext is an organic element indistinguishable from the plotline.

Played by director Jay Dysart and Christopher Hall, Orville and Wilbur Wright are a couple of comically fastidious, complex, brilliant, compellingly strange guys. They run a bicycle repair shop (which looks appropriately stark, like the entire production) and appear to have no lives worth mentioning until the flying bug strikes. They are spiritually married, and they are twins: In one scene, the men argue passionately over whether their machine needs one or two propellers. Finally, the brothers each admit the other was correct and resume arguing, now from opposite sides. Like the propellers they ultimately use, the two must spin with equal force in opposite directions to keep the whole damn thing from twisting out of control.

Their story is shadowed by that of an equally odd fellow, Otto Lilienthal (Brian Baumgartner), a German pioneer of flight whose research aided the Wrights, though they apparently never met. Lilienthal died just a few years before the Wrights' famous flight when his glider broke while hundreds of feet in the air. (This scene is staged symbolically at the play's opening.) According to history books, Lilienthal's prescient last words were, "Sacrifices must be made."

Schulner provides some sexual tension through the play's second most compelling relationship, between Orville and his friend Agnes (Tracey Maloney)--the twin stuff, thankfully, can only go so far. From the moment Agnes walks her bike into the Wrights' shop to see if Orville can "make [her] wheels spin," it's clear that Orville's got a classic problem on his hands: He's in love with a fantastic woman and possessed by a fabulous dream, and he can't have both. In one of the play's best scenes, Orville and Agnes confess their feelings by standing side-by-side in the rain (cleverly staged using falling water), finishing each other's sentences as they talk about nothing much in particular.

It's no surprise that Schulner has worked with playwright Craig Lucas (who wrote Blue Window, which Hidden Theatre performed last fall). In one particularly Blue Window-like scene, three male-female couples stand in separate spots on the stage facing the audience, their lines interweaving into a single, poetic voice of mourning. Each pair is about to be separated by the men's ambition or, more accurately, their inability to do their work and maintain relationships. The assumption that the truly brilliant must defend their isolation from the encroachment of community and loved ones is just part of this play's very American, and very male, worldview.

Given the play's historical context, and Dysart's exquisite portrayal of the conflicted Orville, we forgive this presumption. And in the case of Lilienthal, who speaks one line in the entire play, it's clear that much deeper personal problems have caused him to retreat into his inner world, cutting him off from his wife (played by Annelise Christ) and young children (the excellent Sabrina Crews and David Gamache).

A bit of ballast does keep this production from flying at its end: The climax, where we see the famous photograph of the Wrights' "flyer" lifting a few feet off the ground, is far less exciting than the story that has preceded it--more anticlimactic than exhilarating. A few moments earlier one character says, "Watching you boys fail [has] been the most exciting time in my life." I suspect that's the play's most important line and represents its most daunting dramatic challenge and central message: The creative process is its own reward. The catch is, you have to actually achieve tangible results in order to realize this.

Disturbed by the Wind runs through April 26 at the Southern Theater; call 340-1725.

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