When playwright Terence Rattigan's beautiful and long-neglected "Flare Path" was first performed in London in 1942, Noel Coward's "Blithe Spirit" was all the rage. To many Americans, Coward and his snippy pals still represent the English stiff upper lip during World War II. But there was invariably a note of condescension in Coward when it came to ordinary people, perhaps because of his own humble origins. Rattigan was less flashy but much more compassionate, a writer who understood that Adolf Hitler was defeated only through the struggles and sacrifices of regular folks — who, as shown in this measured but deeply emotional play, developed a sophisticated understanding not only of the tools of war but of the complex responses required when someone did not come home to his wife.
Director Robin Witt's lovely Griffin Theatre production of "Flare Path," a single-set drama that take places over a single night in a hotel on the edge of a wartime Lincolnshire airfield, opened Monday with a distinct soundtrack of audience members sniffling and blowing their noses. It's not that events in the play, about a group of perfectly ordinary British (and one Polish) airmen who leave on a night mission as their wives and friends anxiously await their return, are surprising. Similar scenes played out in many gatherings places near air bases. It's just that Rattigan paints such a full picture of the complexity of a moment in history that, in Hollywood, so frequently was reduced to cliche.
In many ways, "Flare Path" is a study of what it was like to wait for a loved one to come home when there was a good chance of him not making it back. But what makes "Flare Path" so moving, aside from its compassionate sense of realism, is that Rattigan well knew that love was complicated, especially when fused with possible death.
One main story in his play involves a beautiful young actress named Patricia Warren (Darci Nalepa, a name to watch) who is about to dump her insecure airman husband for a much older movie star, played by the laid-back Paul Dunckel. This Pete Kyle, who could use a bit more sexual bite here, has arrived at the Falcon Hotel to carry his married love away, on the very night her husband goes off on a dangerous mission. What should she do? Change her plans? Dare to hope her husband does not come back, which would make things simpler? Plenty of young British women faced similar dilemmas when love and death co-existed as they did in the war. My own mother has a milder version of this story.
Another fascinating motif of this play (which was successfully revived in London by Trevor Nunn a couple of years ago) involves a brave, funny Polish airman (played by Gabe Franken, with real humor and compassion) and his devoted British bride (Vanessa Greenway, whose performance here so rich and risky, it single-handedly raises the stakes of the entire night). Rattigan caught the dislocation of the rabidly anti-Nazi Poles and the looks and comments faced by the young British women who married them.
"Flare Path" is set before U.S. forces arrived in full in the fight against Hitler and it captures the mood of the era — when things were looking bleak and those stoic demeanors only just held off a pervasive panic.
Witt has emphasized truth throughout — Nalepa, an engagingly restless young actress, offers an exceptionally powerful performance as a woman caught between duty and desire. Better yet, although you eventually see the logic of this character's choices, Nalepa is potent enough that you also sense that it will not necessarily be a choice that makes her happy in the end. Nothing is simple in war, but Chicago actors like John Connolly, who plays a reluctant squadron leader, really celebrate the kindness and fortitude of community stalwarts. Not unlike "Saving Private Ryan," "Flare Path" makes the point that ordinary people at war do extraordinary things.
There are, for sure, some more schematic characters in this drama, and less organic moments in the production, but actors like Dylan Stuckey, Lauren Pizzi and Mary Poole, who is very wry here, wisely fight back against type and flesh out their creations, all of whom are coping in different ways with the clash of despair and the need to keep calm and carry on. Staged on a shrewd, Joe Schermoly set that seems like simple realism, until you start to see the mysticism in its soaring verticals, Griffin's ensemble-driven "Flare Path" offers a truly memorable picture of a British moment now vanished — but retaining unspeakable moral power. I found myself hoping groups of Chicago's 80-and-older set would ride their buses en masses to Belmont Avenue to see a show that so richly, and so truthfully, captures the fullness of their youths.
When: Through Feb. 24
Where: Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave.
Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes
Tickets: $25-$32 at 773-975-8150 or griffintheatre.comCopyright © 2015, RedEye