Inflexible Flier

Flight maps the gap between Lindbergh's celebrity status and his haunted inner space

Garth Wingfield's Flight is a good play that covers its subject skillfully and honorably. I'm being cautious with my phrasing because Flight has been inexplicably dismissed in some quarters, and I don't want my reasonable enthusiasm for it to seem like a knee-jerk reaction, automatically vociferating in defense of a play that's been misunderstood elsewhere. But after all possible deductions for reflexive enthusiasm, it remains a good play, and Nick Corley's better-than-good production for the Melting Pot Theatre makes it distinctly worth seeing.

Wingfield's subject is one of modern America's more maddening enigmas, Charles A. Lindbergh, who became an international folk hero of the technological century overnight by making the first successful nonstop solo flight over the Atlantic. After that, however, Lindbergh's life took a number of unexpected turns. The flood of publicity that came with his celebrity status appeared to be more terrifying than gratifying to his reclusive, "inward" personality. He turned down lavish offers, shunned the limelight, declared he was more interested in scientific research than in airborne exploits (though his limited training in science qualified him for little more than backyard tinkering), and married a Park Avenue heiress celebrated for being equally "inward." The celebrity news items began to wither into gossip column snipings, and the popular art enshrining him began to hint darkly at a downside to his all-American bashful boy persona.

Then came what shouldn't have been the second transforming event in Lindbergh's life: the kidnapping of the couple's infant son. One of the most endlessly rehashed crimes in American history, it has generated countless pages without settling the perpetrators' identity. No one is even sure that the sizable ransom the Lindberghs forked over went to the actual kidnappers. (The child was ultimately found dead in the woods near their home; the most viable theory is that he was dropped and killed accidentally during the commission of the crime.) In the aftermath, Lindbergh became more reclusive than ever, though he continued his scientific tinkering, collaborating with the Nobel Prize-winning surgical innovator Alexis Carrel in an attempt to develop an artificial heart; the modern pacemaker owes something to their experiments. At around the same time, distressingly, he began to show sympathies with Nazi Germany, allying himself with the isolationist America First movement and making speeches that earned him enormous public opprobrium, along with the accusation that he was anti-Semitic; his attempts to explain his statements only got him into worse tangles.

Edelman (center) with James and O'Malley
photo: Nick Andrews
Edelman (center) with James and O'Malley

Details

Flight
By Garth Wingfield
Lucille Lortel Theatre
121 Christopher Street
212.279.4200

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After that, silence, at least relatively. Lindbergh flew as a bomber pilot (in the Pacific) in World War II, continued his tinkering with various kinds of engineering devices, and lived long enough to be feted by astronauts training at Cape Canaveral in the mid '60s, not long before his death; his visit there is the scene that opens and closes Wingfield's play. But he was no longer a major focus of attention for the press; his public appearances were comparatively few, coverage of them mostly restrained—except when they were made an occasion for recycling either his child's tragedy or his dubious pre-war activities. For older Americans the story is familiar ground; that the young know less, if they know Lindbergh at all, is partly due to the media quietude that shrouded his last decades.

Flight traces the trajectory of this love affair gone sour between the reluctant hero and his at first eager, then disillusioned, public. Alternating dialogue scenes with news-flash narration, in a style that suggests the "newsreels" in John Dos Passos's USA, the script flexibly shifts angles, giving us first Lindbergh's, then the media's, then the public's. (Its most heartrending moment, entirely believable, is historical, a letter from a Georgia woman, offering to give the Lindberghs her youngest child as a replacement for their lost son.) Cannily, Wingfield doesn't try to "explain" either the idolizing of Lindbergh or the eccentric ways in which he kept dodging or shattering it. Instead he sets up a kind of nightmare triangle between Lindbergh (Gregg Edelman), his wife, Anne (Kerry O'Malley), and an all-purpose reporter (Brian d'Arcy James) who represents the fluctuating attitude of the press; three other actors represent the public and the various figures who track in and out of Lindbergh's life.

The result is less a biographical drama, either psychological or social, than a study in the situational ethics of celebrity. The four key elements—media, Lindbergh, Anne, public— constantly shift position, like pieces on a chessboard, with Lindbergh's enshrinement or destruction the goal of the game. Wingfield is sometimes a little schematic in underscoring his approach, and a little unyielding in his refusal to give clues to the inner workings of Lindbergh's mind, but having chosen his game, Wingfield plays fair, carefully balancing the pros and cons of this complex and fascinating figure. And he never sentimentalizes in the manner of TV biodramas: His thorough treatment of the America First rally at which Lindbergh made the fatal speech is balanced by a later scene between the hero and a concentration camp survivor, in which Lindbergh is made to see for himself the enormity of the death camps—and instantly begins to rationalize that the Germans he knew couldn't have known about them.

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