Bridget Carpenter’s “Up” — inspired by the 1982 balloon flight of truck driver “Lawn Chair Larry” Walters, and the turbulence of his later life — shares a title, buoyant balloons and an admirable degree of emotional nuance with Pixar’s current hit animated film. But the two diverge in their immediate conception, approaching the pursuit of dreams from a fundamentally different angle. In the film, the old-man protagonist lifts off to escape a stultifying retirement home and fulfill a lifelong promise made to his late wife. In Carpenter’s crafty, mostly realistic play, the balloon flight itself is viewed almost entirely from the rearview mirror.
The play’s leading man, middle-aged Walter Griffin (Ian Barford), fulfilled his fantasy flight more than 15 years earlier, and has been trying to recapture his past glory ever since, even as his family’s finances get worse and worse.
This is a story for all the one-hit wonders and split-second reality-show celebrities of the world, or anyone who achieved his moment of fame or fulfillment and then finds himself clinging to it, with a touch of the pathetic, to the point where dream begins to meet delusion.
Carpenter presents a clear-headed view of the world. If Walter is a prototypical American dreamer, his wife, Helen (Lauren Katz), is losing patience with his detachment from the practical. She has been working as a mail carrier for years now and worries that all her quotidian dreams — of a stable family life, a home, a decent retirement — will “float away.”
Their son Mikey (Jake Cohen), meanwhile, is the typical teenage loner. He wishes he could quit school and get a job to help out; when he meets Maria (Rachel Brosnahan), a pregnant and quirky high school newcomer, he finds both a love interest and, through her Aunt Chris (Martha Lavey), a job selling office supplies over the phone. Before long, the quiet kid is cleaning up, but also learning a harsh lesson about trust and heartbreak.
Carpenter’s “Up” was first produced by Alaska’s Perseverance Theater in 2003 and has made some regional rounds since. This production, directed by Anna D. Shapiro (“August: Osage County”) at Chicago’s Steppenwolf, mines the work’s understated sophistication effectively, carefully playing out the small moments of emotional deflation.
Mikey unwittingly crushes his father with the news that his latest quest for an innovative flying gadget has already been done, just as Walter unwittingly undermines Mikey’s efforts to reveal his newfound success with the proclamation that all salesmen are “bottom feeders.”
Just as the play balances dreams and reality, it also balances the realistic with the pixilated. Walter imagines conversations with true-life high-wire daredevil Philippe Petit (played by onetime circus performer Tony Hernandez), but here those scenes, while adequate, lack excitement and tend toward the sentimental.
While the show never quite rises and falls as powerfully as it could, it does retain its emotional complexity, and when we’re finally allowed to view Walter’s lawn chair launch, the play’s accomplished ambiguity takes full flight.