Written by Bridget Carpenter
Directed by Anna D. Shapiro
At Steppenwolf Theatre
Bridget Carpenter’s new play, Up, now playing at Steppenwolf, is a playful show that invites its audience to ponder the ways we live our lives. Based on the true story of Larry Walters, a California man who in 1982 flew to an altitude of 16,000 feet by attaching 45 helium-filled balloons to his lawn chair, Up is about what life is and what we imagine it to be. The show is light and accessible, but has enough depth for even the most ardent of intellectual theatre aficionados. As part of Steppenwolf’s season devoted to the imagination, Up is the perfect finale, a visually appealing, hopeful introspective that is masterfully managed by the light touch of director Anna D. Shapiro.
Walter Griffin (Ian Barford) is the character based on Larry Walters. His whole life is dedicated to his dreams of inventing something absolutely original. He has created many things, but none of them have been practical and the family survives on the meager earnings of his wife, Helen (Lauren Katz). Walter’s life is defined by that one moment 16 years before the play begins when he soared above the world in his lawn chair. He spends his days living a life of inventions yet to be, interacting with his imaginary muse, an apparition of the French wire walker Philippe Petit (Tony Hernandez). It is a life that exists only in an imaginary future. The lawn-chair escapade was and will always be his most self-realized point. Helen struggles with the down-to-earth side of keeping the family from vaporizing as their 16-year-old son Mikey (Jake Cohen) searches for his own identity in the adolescent middle.
The central metaphor of Up is transcendence, creating human identity from the flesh and bones we all exist within. Is the key having unbridled dreams like Walter? Or is it found through love and sacrifice like Helen’s? Or is it through the acquisition of the material as Mikey sets out to do when the pregnant teenager Maria (Rachel Brosnahan) enters his high school class and his heart? There is so much to think about, yet thinking is ultimately not what Up is about. Like the dreams in Walter’s head, this play is a creation of beauty and art that exists for its own sake.
I found it somewhat ironic that the program notes refer to Up as the coming home of the season of imagination – the American play that is about the American dream – because the show is quintessentially French in my view, especially with the delightful Philippe Petit character at its core. Up is art for art’s sake, a thing of beauty to be admired. It’s nice that it makes you think, but that is not its raison d’être.
Up is delicious – a simply beautiful show with a cast that is uniformly magnificent. Bravo!
At Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, Chicago, IL, www.steppenwolf.org or 312-335-1650 tickets $20-$70, Tues-Sun at 7:30 p.m., Sat & Sun matinees at 3:00 pm, Wed matinee at 2:00, running time is 2 hours with one intermission, through August 23, 2009 (no performance July 4th)