North, due north, the north star- by which land, sea and air a traveler determines his whereabouts. Every life change brings consequences/sacrifice, demands; some elicit rewards. Reorientation is constant in our lives. Each person has his own idiosyncratic compass.
North is not a philosophical treatise. It’s a story about three interesting historical figures with much in common. Anne Morrow Lindbergh is perhaps best remembered for the 1932 kidnapping and murder of her firstborn rather than being an early woman pilot or her evocative writing. Charles Lindbergh is known for his heroic, record-breaking trip across the Atlantic in The Spirit of St. Louis, rather than the period during which he was not only isolationist but avowedly anti-semitic. The reputation of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry is defined by his iconic The Little Prince, (based on an actual desert plane crash, by the way) rather than some of the most beautiful and poetic books on aviation you will ever read or his work with the Free French Air Force.
In 1939, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry asked to meet Anne Morrow Lindbergh. They would each write a preface for one of the other’s books. These are facts. Because her subsequent journals are filled with “Saint Ex’s” presence, including devastated reference to his eventual death=disappearance during a World War II reconnaissance mission, there’s conjecture they perhaps had an affair.
Anne (Christina Ritter) addresses the audience, stepping in and out of scenes, reminding herself to “speak up.” Sometimes one of the men watches her, an intriguing directorial decision. We witness the meeting during which, for purposes of the play, Saint Ex. (Christopher Marlowe Roche) speaks English. They’re kindred souls. One can almost see her heart leap. Listening to them talk about flying is to be privy to an outlook on life. Anne takes him home to meet Charles (Kalafetic Poole) who couldn’t be more different. A solid, pragmatic, somewhat bombastic man, Lindbergh is neither romantic nor passionate.
Saint Ex. executes a “lumpish, odd drawing.” Anne recognizes it immediately as a boa constrictor digesting an elephant. “Whenever I encounter a grown-up who seems to me at all enlightened, I experiment with my drawing…he would always answer, `That’s a hat,’” Saint Ex. explains. Art and test would both appear in The Little Prince. Later, despite her objections, the author shows his drawing to Charles who sees, of course, a hat.
The hat reminds Anne of one worn by her dead child. “Your Little Prince,” nods Saint Ex. The horrific kidnapping and its fallout is one of several story lines that wind through dramatization. Anne grapples with admitted “roles” as full-time mother, artist, wife-companion…and charming woman. “Your William James calls this a sickness. Zerrissenheit. Torn-to-pieces-hood,” Saint Ex. comments. There’s talk of the craft of writing, of the back seat she takes in her marriage exemplified by flying with Charles, of duty, love and eventually war, where again points of view are polar opposites, yet Anne makes huge concessions.
Based on copious reading/research into the journals, books, and speeches of all three characters, North is historical fiction. “…Fundamentally, it is simply a woman’s story. The story of a woman’s life and ordeal. Any woman. Any ordeal,” Anne explains.
Playwright Jennifer Schlueter has written an utterly fascinating piece of theater. She illuminates both her characters and universal issues without losing the specificity of the first and empathetic reaction to the second. Relationships are no less complex for being comprehensibly enacted. Both thought and emotion are engaged. Language is deft and rich. We are flown to the stars, bound by society, and reminded of trade-offs. Anne is real.
Inspired staging plays out against a set consisting of three swings hung from the ceiling and a ladder that disappears into it conceived by Christina Ritter and Jennifer Schlueter (realized by Designer Brad Steinmetz). Director Jennifer Schlueter utilizes her metaphors beautifully. Swings are sat and stood upon, spun, loose or tangled, free or grounded. At several points they’re utilized as control panels of planes. The ladder is rarely but tellingly mounted. Scenes are almost balletic yet never unnatural. Really, it’s riveting.
Schlueter is equally as skilled with her actors whose focus is so complete, even still or silent, one practically breathes with them. Pacing couldn’t be better. Eyes are revealing; gestures expressive. Anne moves about the length and breadth of the stage as if physically in her own mind. Scenes between her and Saint Ex. are filled with exultation and portent while those with Charles are –earthbound.
Christina Ritter (Anne Morrow Lindbergh) holds us from her emphatic entrance. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an actress appear so wide open. Every speech has the ring of truth, no action is squandered. Ritter’s Anne is surprised and excited by Saint Ex. who brings out both her femininity and strength. Subtlety of acting makes this thrilling. Memories of the kidnapping rife with agony and guilt are palpable, not melodramatic. The battle between commitment and moral aversion where Charles is concerned is painful.
Christopher Marlow Roche creates an irresistible Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. The actor invites us to progressively share in his character’s surprise and pleasure at the discovery of Anne, making feelings more credible. His gaze at her across the stage is so magnetic one expects a spark when they touch. Reaction to Charles is enacted with great nuance, yet decidedly pointed. Roche manages to raise an eyebrow without seeming arch. Overall restraint actually feels Gallic as it in no way minimizes a potential sweep of romance.
Kalafatic Poole (Charles Lindbergh) is unfortunately the weak link. His Lindbergh seems bland rather than egotistical and conservative. The flyer was not without charisma as evidenced not only by his wife’s loyalty but liaisons with at least three other women who bore him children. As played by Poole, he’d be no match for his rival and hold little attraction for the clearly able, talented, and intelligent Anne. Poole never fully inhabits his role.
Photos Isaiah Tanenbaum
Conceived by Christina Ritter and Jennifer Schlueter
Written and Directed by Jennifer Schlueter
Featuring Christina Ritter, Christopher Marlow Roche, Kalafatic Poole
59E59 Street Theaters
59 East 59 Street
Through October 28, 2012