In the middle years of the 20th century, Terrence Rattigan (1911-1977) was perhaps England’s most important playwright. (Noel Coward was in a state of temporary eclipse, though he would experience a triumphant resurgence a few years later.) Rattigan specialized in genteel, conventional well-made plays, but his skill and his talent for capturing the flavor of English middle-class life redeemed him. Then John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, and other young leftist playwrights came along and turned Rattigan’s world upside down. Sudddenly he seemed dated and out of touch. But in his centenary year, 2011, he made a comeback of sorts, like Coward before him.
Flare Path, first produced in 1942, is set in the early days of World War II, and centers on the lives of RAF pilots and their wives, living in a hotel on the east coast of England in 1941. The RAF has just proved successful in defeating Hitler’s Luftwaffe, despite terrible losses. Now British pilots are able to make bombing raids on Germany itself rather than devoting all their efforts to defending the home front, though England is still being raided by Messerschmitts, and will continue to be so until the end of the war.
(The play’s title refers to the runways illuminated by lights during take-offs and landings.)
The dowdy Hotel Falcon is adjacent to the airfield, so we can hear the roar of planes heading out, or coming back, the air raid sirens when attack is imminent, and the anti-aircraft guns pounding. (Sound designer Joseph “Sloe” Slawinsky does an excellent job of evoking the atmosphere and sounds of war: We feel as well as hear the thunder of the guns.)
The hotel manager, Mrs. Oaks (Ann Ryerson), is working hard to cope with the shortages and diminished staff that war has brought about, and she’s running the hotel assisted by just one young waiter (John Salandria). Her guests include pilot Lt. Teddy Graham (Christian Pedersen) and his American actress wife Patricia (Christine Joelle), Count “Johnny” Skriczevinsky (Karl Czerwonka), a Polish refugee who has joined the RAF, and his working-class English wife Doris (Alison Blanchard). Also present are young crewman Dusty (Caleb Slavens) and his wife Maudie (Annalee Scott).
The plot gets underway with the arrival of an American movie star, Peter Kyle (Shawn Savage), seeking a room in the already over-crowded hotel. He claims to be merely passing through, but it emerges that he is the former lover of Patricia, wife of Lt, Graham. Kyle has recently reconnected with Patricia, and fallen in love all over again. He has come, expecting Patricia to leave her husband and go away with him. Their plans are interrupted by the arrival of the Fight Command Adjutant Swanson (Anthony Ferguson), who has come to alert the fliers that they’re about to be sent out on a night mission over Germany. The danger is underlined by the fact that one of the four planes is attacked by a lurking Messerschmitt and blown up before it can even leave the ground. Only two of the three remaining planes returns intact. And when Teddy Graham reveals to Patricia that he is subject to terrible, debilitating fears, and desperately needs her support, she’s torn by the conflicting demands of love and duty.
Rattigan’s script deftly examines the fears and tensions of wartime and the fact that even under mortal duress, class differences still loom large. Bruce Gray provides subtle, unobtrusive direction and he has assembled a solid ensemble. As the hotel manager, Ryerson adds rich character, marked by amusing idiosyncrasies, to what might have been a throwaway role. Pedersen deftly captures Teddy’s breezy style, as well as the crippling fears that wrack him after 17 perilous missions, and as his wife Patricia, Joelle is a winning presence in a pallidly conventional role. Czerwonka finds material for comedy in the Polish officer’s attempts to communicate with his minimal English, and Blanchard scores as the working class wife who’s embarrassed by the title of Countess and fears that after the war, her husband’s aristocratic family will never accept her. Ferguson contributes a sterling performance as the sophisticated, caring C.O.
Jeff G. Rack designed the large, handsomely detailed set.