StageSceneLA: Flare Path is a Forgotten Gem

A dashing English WWII fighter pilot. A handsome Hollywood film star. The pilot’s actress wife who loves them both. Could any triangle be more ripe for romantic drama than the threesome at the heart of Terence Rattigan’s 1942 stage hit Flare Path, rescued from obscurity by a 2011 West End revival and now being given a spiffy, seven-decades-awaited Los Angeles Premiere by Beverly Hills’ Theatre 40?

The out-of-the-blue arrival of naturalized U.S. citizen Peter Kyle (Shawn Savage) at the Falcon Hotel on England’s east coast seems a mere coincidence when the English-born actor gets recognized by married-into-royalty Countess Doris Skriczevinsky (Alison Blanchard) and given a room for the night by gruff hotel owner Mrs. Oakes (Ann Ryerson).

That visiting London stage actress Patricia Warren (Christine Joëlle) happens to know Peter from a play they did together a few years back seems hardly cause for her flying ace husband Teddy Graham (Christian Pedersen) to suspect anything calculated about Peter’s overnight presence at the airstrip-adjacent hotel he calls home these days.

Once Pat and Peter have at long last been left alone in the hotel lounge, however, it becomes clear that the illicit lovers’ relationship predates hers with Teddy, and that Peter has come to take Pat away with him, marital bonds be damned.

Only a surprise mission that sends Teddy, tail gunner Dusty Miller (Caleb Slavens), Doris’ considerably younger Polish husband Count “Johnny” Skriczevinsky (Karl Czerwonka), and squadron leader Swanson (Antony Ferguson) flying off into the wild blue yonder prevents the adulterous couple from revealing their intentions to an unsuspecting Teddy, leaves Peter as frustrated as a man can be, and has all three wives wondering if tonight’s farewell will be their last.

No one does Flare Path-style drama better than the English, no one writes about adultery better than Terence (The Browning Version, The Deep Blue Sea, Separate Tables) Rattigan, and no L.A. theater company does period pieces better than Theatre 40, their latest following in the path of such previous T40 hits as Laura, Agatha Christie’s Black Coffee, and The Voysey Inheritance.

That playwright Rattigan completed Flare Path’s first draft just after the Battle Of Britain (and a year before America’s entry into the war) makes this largely forgotten work of particular interest to contemporary audiences.

Others may have written about WWII in retrospect. Rattigan wrote Flare Path smack dab in the middle of the soon-to-be worldwide conflagration, armed only with the hope that England would triumph against Germany, a hope expressed in a climactic twist that may have raised theater critics’ hackles at the time but was what precisely what the public wanted and needed. No wonder then that Flare Path played to packed West End houses for 679 performances. No wonder then that it remains a crowd-pleaser seventy-two years later.

Under Bruce Gray’s deft direction, an all-around splendid cast deliver one sharply-delineated characterization after another, from featured players Czerwonka (whose delightful Johnny takes on the English language with the same gusto as he does his air missions), Ferguson (the real-life London native epitomizing English pluck), Ryerson (a crusty treat as Mrs. Oakes), Slavens (playing Dusty with abundant zest), and Annalee Scott (vanishing inside the mousy skin of Dusty’s visiting wife Maudie). Add to that talented 20-year-old L.A. newcomer John Salandria, irresistibly perky as teen waiter Percy, and the production’s four stars could not receive more expert support.

L.A. theater treasure Blanchard adds yet another richly-layered performance to her résumé, this time as a woman “past her prime” who can’t believe her luck at having found the younger man of her dreams … and can only cling to the hope that her beloved Johnny will survive the war.

Savage’s leading man good looks and first-rate acting chops make him the ideal choice to play movie star Peter, just about the farthest thing from the wounded, bearded Civil War vet he portrayed last year at the Pico Playhouse in The Whipping Man, but another fine, sensitively-played performance from the Theatre 40 favorite.

As for the object of Peter’s passionate affection, a brunette wig is just one reason audiences may not recognize T40’s Joëlle from her Scenie-winning Northern Irish tough-cookie in Remembrance. What is entirely recognizable is Joëlle’s talent and beauty and the delicate shadings she gives Patricia.

Saving best for last, the charismatic star turn of recent L.A. arrival Pedersen proves the next best thing to having Leslie Howard resurrected from the dead to play Teddy. Not only does Pedersen have the debonair blond good looks to leave audiences as torn between two lovers as Patricia is, the raw emotion he gives Teddy’s shell-shocked meltdown scene makes it one of the year’s most devastating and memorable.

Scenic designer Jeff G. Rack replicates the rundown small-town hotel that is the Falcon quite expertly indeed with the help of prop master Ernest McDaniel, kudos shared by costume designer Michèle Young, who confections one character/period-perfect outfit after another, and crackerjack lighting designer Ric Zimmerman, given here yet another chance to shine.

Best of all is Joseph “Sloe” Slawinski’s stunning sound design, one that truly makes you believe there are aircraft flying above the Theater 40 audience and stage, that is when they’re not taking off or fending off enemy attack or landing, albeit not always safely.

Flare Path is produced by Theatre 40 artistic director David Hunt Stafford. Don Solosan is stage manager and Richard Carner stage hand. Kori Beth Kaye is script supervisor. Finally, Stuart James Galbraith earns high marks for his spot-on dialect coaching.

With far more 20th-century plays than there are slots in the entirety of L.A. theater company seasons put together, a forgotten gem like Terence Rattigan’s Flare Path could easily get lost in the scramble to assemble a year’s worth of plays.

Audiences can thank goodness—and Theatre 40—that Flare Path did not.