FLARE DONE WITH FLAIR
Unlike Sherwood’s Idiot’s Delight (1936), Terence Rattigan’s Flare Path (1941) is not an anti-war play. Both take place in a hotel and have a rich variety of characters, but while Sherwood’s Pulitzer-winner is a clear commentary on mankind’s fear, idealism, self-indulgence, and foolishness, Flare Path is a slice-of-life period piece whose theme is compassion and sacrifice during wartime. Although this traditionally conventional and somewhat overly sentimental WWII drama shows its age at times, Theatre 40’s beautiful presentation allows the play to sweep you up into the characters’ life-and-death decisions and feelings of duty for their country.
Over a single night in a small hotel on the edge of a Lincolnshire airfield, a group of perfectly ordinary British airmen leave on a night mission as their wives and friends anxiously await their return. Rattigan, drawing on his own experience as a tail gunner in the RAF, offers no surprises. What he does—in his typically understated fashion—is bring to life the complexity of a moment in history that was so frequently reduced to cliché in WWII films.
Director Bruce Gray’s impeccable cast—all of whom have unsullied dialects (dialect coach Stuart James Galbraith)—capture the subtle humanity and wholesomeness of these average folks. Fully committing to the old-fashioned romanticism is Christine Joëlle as a beautiful young bit actress named Patricia, married for less than a year to Teddy (Christian Pederson), a young bomber pilot with a façade of bravado. Arriving at the hotel is her ex-flame, fading film star Peter (Shawn Savage), who fully intends to run off with her.
Rattigan puts this potentially tragic triangle in its proper context. He contrasts their emotional impasse with two other couples—the vibrant and well-lubricated passion between a former goodtime girl (Alison Blanchard) and her bumbling but ardent husband, a Polish flier and Count (Karl Czerwonka) who loves her more than he can say in English. Then there’s the edgier partnership of diffident tail gunner Dusty Miller (Caleb Slavens) and his controlling but concerned Maudie (Annalee Scott). Seeing their stories, Patricia, knowing that right now the center of everything is the war, is torn between love and duty.
Rattigan peoples his busy lobby with very eccentric British types, but nothing Cowardesque; which may attribute to the original outing’s lengthy run—audiences at that time no doubt related to characters without a stiff upper lip. The standout performances here are Ann Ryerson as the prim and proper proprietress Mrs. Oakes, and John Salandria as the eager-beaver barboy, Percy. Although Mr. Gray could have eked more nuance and discovery from his entire ensemble, their work is warm and welcome.
This beautifully observant period piece is enriched by its design team: the lived-in but tidy appearance of the hotel lobby (with its crackling fireplace) by set designer Jeff G. Rack, well-aided by prop master Ernest McDaniel; the directional sound of planes flying overhead by Joseph “Sloe” Slawinski; the realistic lights sourced from the hotel fixtures and the neighboring airfield by Ric Zimmerman; and the authentic costumes showing signs of wartime wear by Michèle Young (the uncredited hairstyles, presumably by Ms. Young, are also extraordinary).