08 Fringe: “Jealous Sky”

LtR: Cindy Phillips, Connie Tobias, and Kimberly Lester - photo provided by “Jealous Sky” playwright Paul L. Bancel

Warning:  This review has more spoilers than usual.

At 7:30 on the Tuesday evening of the 2008 Indianapolis Fringe Festival I was at the Theatre on the Square’s Second Stage to see the world premiere of “Jealous Sky: Aviatrixes in the Clouds,” written and produced by Paul L. Bancel.

Bancel is an engineer by day, an aviation history buff by night, and a recent graduate of the Creative Writing Program at Eastern Michigan University.  He lives in Ann Arbor now, but he is a self-proclaimed “DePauw tiger and Purdue engineer.”

He has written some short stories before this, but “Jealous Sky” is his first play.

It is a treat.

Even Whitney Smith, performing arts reviewer for the Indianapolis Star, felt compelled to write about it, even though it was not one of the shows he had agreed to review for the paper.

Bancel imagines the competitive conversations that Amelia Earhart (Kimberly Lester) and Harriet Quimby (Cindy Phillips) might have if they were still alive somehow to share a space and talk shop.  Earhart, you probably know, was the first woman to fly the Atlantic, in 1928.  She and her navigator, Fred Noonan (Adam O. Crowe), disappeared in 1937 while they were trying to fly around the world at the equator.

Unfortunately, most people don’t remember Harriet Quimby.  I had never heard of her.  She was the first licensed woman pilot and in 1912 she became the first woman to fly the English Channel.  She died that same year in a plane crash.  However, 1912 was also when the Titanic went down.  Quimby’s accomplishment and tragedy were overshadowed by that larger tragedy.

Interspersed with the timeless conversations between the two women are scenes in “real” (i.e., chronological, historical) time between Earhart and Noonan.  Earhart says they were “complements, not companions.”  Noonan was a dry alcoholic.

Noonan also reads aloud from letters he sent to his friend, Helen, as he and Earhart were circling the globe.  No one knows for sure if Helen was his mistress or just a good friend.  He had only just married his wife (I forget her name) before he and Earhart set out on their fateful journey.  His wife did not keep his letters.

Earhart and Quimby talk not only about their flying careers but about the rest of their lives as well.  I was delighted to learn that Quimby had been a theatre reviewer as well as a pilot!  And a screenwriter.  And quite refined and glamorous.   She wears a hooded flying jumpsuit made of purple satin while Earhart wears a leather bomber jacket and pants.  Quimby’s hair is swept up in a pompadour while Earhart wears her hair quite short.  (Costumes by Karla Hoskins.)

Quimby never married and Earhart did, but people thought that Earhart was gay and Quimby straight.  Earhart married her manager, but only after getting him to agree to a kind of marriage contract, which was very unusual for that time.  One of the things the two women challenge each other on in the play is the truth about each other’s sex and love lives.

The conversations are fascinating.  Meanwhile, the chronological story of Noonan and Earhart’s final flight is suspenseful.  Again and again, throughout the play, I forgot completely that I was watching actors.

But the final scene, when Earhart and Noonan are sitting in their plane (two wooden chairs), lost over the endless ocean, is the most powerful of all.  There is the loud roar of the plane’s engines; I felt as if I were right there with them.  Earhart is more or less calmly trying to call for help on the radio; Noonan is more or less calmly trying to read his sextant and figure out where they are; they are both trying to spot the tiny island that holds fresh fuel and other supplies for them.  They are trying and trying, as the stage lights fade.

When the house lights came up, I was weeping.

I am tearing up again, remembering my feelings of loss.

After I had blown my nose and wiped my eyes, I got a chance to talk with the director, Tony McDonald, outside the stage door of Theatre on the Square.  He told me that Bancel had interviewed two directors and decided on McDonald after only their first meeting.  I remembered then that the Phoenix Theatre’s Artistic Director, Bryan Fonseca, had told me the playwright would be getting a dramaturg as well as a director by hiring McDonald.  McDonald is a playwright himself as well as an actor and a director.

McDonald said Bancel had been very open to suggestions, so they cut some of the technical information that had been in the original script, and rearranged some of the scenes to leave the conversations between the two women on an “up” note leading into the final flight scene. 

I love that the play incorporates primary sources such as Noonan’s letters.  Also, for me the amount of technical information was just right: enough to feel rich and authentic but not so much that I felt overwhelmed.  I felt free to just let what I didn’t understand slide over me without feeling that I was losing the thread of the play.

Early in the Fringe week, I received an email from the playwright that included the above photo and the following mini press release:

Captain Connie Tobias of Charlotte, NC, noted Harriet Quimby re-enactor, who has flown the Atlantic over 1000 times as a pilot for US Airways, took the day off and flew into Indy on Saturday to surprise the cast and crew of “Jealous Sky.”  Tobias, who has been re-enacting Quimby for nine years and who flies a 1909 Bleriot in her re-enactments, came to Indianapolis to see “Jealous Sky” when she heard that Harriet Quimby was meeting Amelia Earhart above the clouds.

“It’s about time,” she told the cast when she surprised them in the dressing room after Saturday’s show.  “You nailed her,” she told everyone.  “(You nailed) the politics, the tensions, the personalities of these two ambitious fliers from another generation.”  After 26 years in the cockpit alongside men, Tobias said she knows exactly what Earhart and Quimby faced as they conquered the air.

Afterwards over coffee on Mass Ave she told Cindy Adams (Harriet), Kimberly Lester (Amelia), and the playwright Paul L. Bancel that they had the flying aspects of the play down perfectly.  The Bleriot weighs only 700 pounds and every body movement in the plane affects its balance. Flying the Bleriot means constant attention.  Tobias’s own theory about Quimby’s fatal plunge in Boston in 1912 is that the tail developed too much lift as they headed down for a landing and pitched the plane forward.

Later in the week, after I had seen the play myself, I saw the playwright handing out postcards for the play in front of the Theatre on the Square.  It was a pleasure to be able to tell him in person how deeply his play had moved me.

Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com

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