The Wright brothers, Wilbur and Orville, are most famous for their flight of a motor-operated airplane at Kitty Hawk, NC on December 17, 1903. In Arthur Giron’s Flight, their dogged pursuit of flying seems both inspired by and a result of family dynamics.
Firebox Theatre Company’s second production makes full use of their open space at The Cotton Company in Wake Forest. With the audience flanking three sides of a stage area, actors entering and exiting from all corners, as well as performing in these surrounding spaces, creates an immersive experience. Indeed we are plunged into the late 19th early 20th century period from the costuming (Brenda Holden) to the music (Josh Hemphill), particularly the use of revival hymns and folk songs that characterize this era.
Early attempts by the Wright brothers on their initial trips to Kill Devil Hills were unsuccessful, and the play opens with one of those failures. Then the audience is transported to the siblings scrappin’ as youngsters and their mother pulling them apart. The time travel is subtle, smooth, the scenes flowing as an ensemble adjusts the set and the actors transition to younger or older versions of themselves. And it ever so effectively establishes what drove their determination to become air borne.
Both David Holt (Wilbur) and Eli Brand (Orville) adroitly navigate their roles from warring siblings to young men obsessed with reaching the sky. Holt’s Wilbur struggles with a variety of frustrations: helping his sickly mother, living up to expectations of his itinerant preacher father, and competing with a younger brother who’s both smart and ambitious. He can’t quite commit to the divinity-inspired career his father wants for him, but seems unable to move forward with his own ambition.
Brand’s Orville has a determined air, bold and brash, often annoyed with his brother’s self-doubt. He’s tender with his mother and yearns for attention from his often absent father. Where Holt fills the space with his frustrations, Brand exhibits a more understated physicality; the contrasts emphasizing the clashes that also fuel their obsessions.
Surprisingly, the play’s center is really their mother, Susan, raising her boys mostly alone with an abundance of religious faith and a deep belief in the importance of family bonds. Cora Hemphill elevates the somewhat stiff dialogue, endowing Susan with both fragility and tremendous resilience. She’s tender and forgiving, especially with a husband who adores her but is self-absorbed. Whether mediating sibling rivalry, father-son disagreements, or imparting wisdom, Hemphill carries the weight of the play throughout.
Tom Barbieri’s Milton Wright displays the charisma of a traveling man of the lord more than the emotional tenor. This Milton is conscious of his elevated image, attempting to exert his authority, and despairing of sons who aren’t fulfilling the roles he’s designed for them. He seems overly restrained for a man who presumably speaks of fire and brimstone before crowds to inspire religious fervor.
Brendan Micciche’s Otto Lilienthal lends a touch of whimsical surrealism in his conversations with Wilbur. Micciche’s expressive eyes and only slightly cartoonish German accent add to the effect. He provides the tenderness and understanding that Wilbur wants from his father, as well as motivation. Lilienthal was an actual aviation pioneer known as “The Flying Man” and the brothers avidly studied his work with gliders.
Tim Artz directs the actors with choreographed precision, and the set design by Cora and Josh Hemphill is the right combination of abstract and real as the parts of the eventual flying machine almost become another character in the show.
Giron has filled the plot with lots of historical references but the play is not a documentary and loose with biographical information. The achievements of the brothers form the backdrop for exploring how a variety of factors may have fueled their passion; however, in some instances, it feels like modern sensibilities have intruded a bit too much into the dynamics. Then again, children not meeting parental expectations, parents favoring one child over another, and spouses clashing are classic theatrical elements. While this production rises above most of the script limitations, one wishes Giron would have done something less predictable with the themes.
Flight runs through April 2. For more information visit https://www.fireboxtheatre.com/.