There’s a whole genre of theater that speaks to the escalating hope and mournful losses to be found in the pursuit of the American Dream; Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill, and Arthur Miller all built their legends soundly upon this firmament. Bridget Carpenter’s “Up,” now playing at Bristol Riverside Theater, takes this idea one step further, bringing us along on a soaring ride through one man’s realized dream, and the quirks it generates in both him and his family. And then, it plunges us back to earth, into a world where we learn exactly what happens when we attain our dreams, and the dangers of living in the world that comes next.
“Up” takes its inspiration from the legend of truck driver Larry Walters, who tied a cluster of helium-filled weather balloons to a deck chair and took flight in 1982, reaching a height of 16,000 feet. With water jugs for ballast and an air pistol to eliminate balloons for his eventual descent, Walters’ journey landed him on David Letterman and into the annals of Urban Legend (and, perhaps, inspired some of the same elements in the similarly titled but drastically different Disney/Pixar film of the same name).
Carpenter’s comedy-drama takes this quirky, outlandish story and spins it through an imaginative saga of what-happens-after. Walter Griffin (the boisterous, charming Benjamin Lloyd) is a middle-aged inventor, stuck in his 15 minutes of fame, 16 years after the fact. His 1985 flight transformed him into both urban legend and goofy punchline while simultaneously shattering his career; out of work for over a decade, his household is supported by his wife, Helen (Michelle Eugene), a postal worker eight years away from earning her pension. Their awkward and adorable 16-year-old son, Mikey (Jonathan Silver), is torn between the amorphous boredom of his high school classes and a clear, contagious admiration for his father’s zealous attention to his inventions. Walter, desperate to reclaim the adventure and joy of his flight, is constantly finagling new flying-machine contraptions in his basement.
The relationships of “Up” are so well-drawn and delightfully odd that I found myself spellbound and completely wooed for the first act-and-a-half. Walter is sold to us as a loveable, idyllic dreamer, with his head still stuck in the clouds and his heart completely assured of one day reclaiming the freedom of the skies and the boundlessness of his dreams. Prone to occasional moments of regret and frustration, Walter is spurred on by the story — and actualized figment — of tightrope walker and performance artist Philippe Petit (Kyle Driggs), who performs acts of circus and proffers moments of revelatory advice. Helen’s love for her husband is unconditional, if occasionally prone to passive-aggressive bemused comments about “her real husband,” who happens to be doting, pragmatic, and entirely fictional.
On his first day of 10th grade, Mikey meets Maria (Laura C. Giknis), a free-spirit, open-souled sophomore who also happens to be six months pregnant. Mikey’s straight-laced, jackknifed, “life sucks” persona is surprisingly winning, and the transformations brought to his life by exposure to Maria are awfully fun to watch. Mikey begins to work in telemarketing for Maria’s Aunt Chris (Jo Twiss, a relentless steamroller of energy), and, surprisingly, discovers a talent for sales, a newfound passionate work ethic, and a way to provide for his loved ones, which puts his father’s years of idle inventing in a new light.
There comes a fulcrum point in the play where all of the above is in play, and I found myself thinking, “I want to spend hours with these characters; I want them on the page, on my television, in my life, every week.” They’re just that addictively fun and kooky and alive. Then, of course, the fulcrum tilts, and all of the actions, dreams, and lives with which we have been presented come crashing towards the play’s conclusion. I’m not going to spoil it here, but the play itself becomes a Petit-style highwire act of its own, as each of the characters’ dreams are suspended at a lofty height — and then come crashing down as several rapid, feral layers of reality are exposed all at once.
Dreams are potent, elevating things and, like the balloons that hoisted Walter into the sky, when they burst, everything changes. That’s the loud-and-clear message of this production, and while the messages and themes of the play are well-presented and skillfully portrayed, it makes the play’s punch-in-the-gut act two twist hurt all the more.
The circus elements of the staging are absolutely worth noting. Theatrical newcomer Driggs has no shortage of circus skill, and his juggling and highwire act includes moments of real, authentic magic that add exponentially to the dreaminess of the evening.
I really found myself attached to “Up”; ultimately, however, I find myself stuck in some of the half-formed disclosures of the play. Is Walter an eccentric champion, or dangerously mentally ill? Is Maria herself delusional or tethered by love to a man who will destroy her? Is Mikey’s newfound sales skill to be lauded or feared? All these questions float through the play, begging to be tethered and answered, but always drifting just out of reach.
The evening ends with a flashback to Walter’s fateful flight, in a moment of impressive quick-change artistry that transforms several characters into their past selves and sends Walter himself skyward. It’s an exhilarating bit of stagecraft that just makes the eventual earthfall of all of these characters’ spirits that much harder to take.
In the end, “Up” is an evening of theater well worth your time. Just remember: your dreams, and what may happen after them, are worth keeping an eye on.
“Up,” through Sunday, April 4, Bristol Riverside Theater, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, PA. 215-785-0100 or www. brtstage.org