He doesn’t wear a crown or pluck out his eyes after his tragic fall from grace; nonetheless, Charles Lindbergh emerges as the classical model of the Aristotelian hero in “Flight,” Garth Wingfield’s cautionary bio-drama about the perils of fame in America. Quirkily cast with musical theater vets who prove up to the challenge, this crisp Melting Pot production has the clean lines and thematic clarity of the best kind of agit-prop theater — the kind with a heart. With finishing work to give the hero a more heroic sendoff, show is a smart bet for transfer.
In his Off Broadway scribbling debut, Garth Wingfield shows good construction skills in building a sturdy arc for his story. Bookended by two ironic scenes depicting this iconic American hero in his obscure later years, “Flight” follows aviator Charles Lindbergh through 14 crucible years of a public life that begins in 1927 with the historic solo flight across the Atlantic to Paris that transformed this modest Midwestern aeronautical engineer into an instant idol. By 1941, that adulation comes to an end when the beloved national hero becomes a despised pariah for airing his shallow anti-Semitic views and naive admiration for German scientific research.
With his square jaw and corn-fed masculinity, Gregg Edelman (“Wonderful Town”) looks the Lindbergh part and plays it with intelligent restraint, deploying carefully measured vocals to lead this sacrificial lamb to his slaughter on the altar of public opinion.
Voicing noble but shockingly naive sentiments familiar from bios, thesp effortlessly captures the duality of character that dooms Lindy. With as much technical precision as passion, he conveys both the earnestness of a young man whose ambitions go well beyond aeronautics and the stubbornness of a famous man’s refusal to acknowledge limits to those ambitions.
“It’s really just a matter of engineering,” Lindbergh says of his dream of constructing, “creating, if you will,” a mechanical heart. To the actor’s credit, he doesn’t telegraph the fatal flaw in the hero’s hubristic belief that, through science, “I could improve upon nature.” But that flaw sets up the tragedy that everyone but Lindbergh can see coming.
That includes his wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, exquisitely portrayed here by Kerry O’Malley (“Into the Woods”) as Lindbergh’s ideal mate — as reserved and shy as her husband, but, truth to tell, a hell of a lot smarter.
Their compatibility as characters (mirrored by the thesps who play them) is most evident during the harrowing scenes of the infamous 1932 kidnapping and murder of their 21-month-old son. When Lindbergh breaks that marital bond, failing to follow his wife’s counsel on the political speeches that would ruin him, O’Malley plays the moment for the tragedy it is.
In the deconstructionist style of Wingfield’s text (visually orchestrated by the sleek lines of the modernist paneled set and historic photo projections designed by Michael Deegan and Sarah Conly), three supporting actors, Victoria Mack outstanding among them, portray all the other characters in Lindbergh’s life story. That leaves it to Brian D’Arcy James to play the collective role of the chorus — the jackals of the press who manipulate too-trusting Lindy to create his iconic image and callously turn on him when he trips over his own unguarded tongue.
James carries the responsibility with stylistic aplomb, skipping around the stage with cocky self-confidence, snapping out orders with cynical disdain for his bewildered victim. But while this relentless hounding by the press might reflect the reality of the period, making unethical journalists the villains of this piece and depicting Lindy as a clueless dupe is much too simplistic.
By betraying his principles to conspire in the creation of his legend, Lindbergh was far more complicit in his own downfall than he is allowed to be in Wingfield’s script and helmer Nick Corley’s overly streamlined production of it. While the play acknowledges his fatally stubborn refusal to listen to wiser heads than his, Lindbergh is never forced to admit his excessive ambition and acknowledge the role he played in his own tragedy — the defining moment of truth for a real hero.