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A CurtainUp Review
In the Air
. . .I wish I were with you. In the air. That's what they say about the flu-- it's in the air. . . .The good -- and the bad-- both are in the air. --- Ellen in a letter to her beloved fly boy

Nisi Sturgi &   Jeanine Bartel in In the Air
Nisi Sturgi & Jeanine Bartel
(Photo: Gerry Goodstein)
This world premiere of In the Air, a drama about a worldwide health calamity, demonstrates that erstwhile journalist Paul Enger's well-honed instinct for a newsworthy story has not deserted him. The Great Flu Epidemic of 1918 killed 700,00 Americans and 21 million people world-wide. It was an unparalleled natural disaster on top of the man-made disaster of World War I, known as the war to end all wars. With the country at war once again and apprehension about bird flu mutating into another difficult to treat pandemic mounting -- not to mention an escalating incidence of tsunamis, hurricanes and earthquakes-- Enger couldn't have chosen a timelier subject. .

And yet, for all this killer epidemic's inherent drama, In the Air is a quiet, rather sweet tale of three young people whose hopes and dreams are put on hold by the tragedy. The playwright has chosen to confine his story to a small canvas -- a small town in North Dakota, typical of many small communities in the Midwest and Northern regions of the country where Norwegian immigrants like his own kinsfolk had settled.

The three critical months in the lives of 18-year-old Ellen Hanson (Jeanine Bartel), her 29-year-old sister Clara (Nisi Sturgis) play out in the room they rent from the termagant widow Mrs. Ames (Celia Howard). Along with the overarching shadow of the escalating flu epidemic, which deepens even as the Armistic is finally signed, there is a budding romance between Ellen and Ben (Preston Dane), another young second generation American who's smitten with flying and its possibilities for a more fulfilling life than tending his father's store in a neighboring town.

Such miniaturized views of monumental events can make for effective story telling, and address the demands imposed on a theater, especially a small one, for keeping the cast and scenery on a modest scale. And so the claustrophobic confines of Mrs. Ames boarding house becomes a metaphor for the excitement of new challenges to be explored in the air (by pioneering pilots) and the constant danger from the incurable diseases that are also in the air.

Unfortunately, Enger's metaphor is rather trite and his execution of this concept comes off less as a compelling play than a slow-moving, low key adaptation of a once popular children's book genre-- the young adult novel with a central character becoming wiser by the time the last page is turned, and the likelihood for adoption as an educational book increased by the historical background. Besides being snail paced, the plot hints at but never builds any conflict. Though the sisters are different -- Clara is serious and spinsterish and Ellen to whom she's been both mother and sister bubbly and eager for adventure and romance -- there's never any doubt that their sibling bond is solid and grounded in genuine love. Ellen is worried that Ben cares more about flying than her but he's clearly true blue and her concern is strictly a product of her shallow immaturity. The nasty landlady predictably turns out to have a heart even if it's not made of gold.

Tom Ferriter, who is both producer and director, does little to help the all too predictable script gain altitude. Nisi Sturgis is a touching Clara, but Jeannine Bartel is rather one note as Ellen. Preston Dane is a reasonable re-incarnation of Jimmy Stewart and Van Johnson rolled into one.

As with several plays I've seen recently, the most winning element is the set, in this case by Zhanna Gurvich who has furnished the sisters' room with a loving and careful eye for period detail, and topped it with a beautiful blue sky. This authentic set combined with Kristine Koury's costumes, Jeffrey Koger's sensitive lighting and Aural Fixation's apt sound design give In the Air the flavor of one of those forgotten old treasures so beautifully restored to life by the Mint Theater. Maybe there's a real treasure about the Great Flu Epidemic waiting to be redisovered by a company like the Mint. Too bad this new play, for all its worthy intentions, is unlikely to go into the time capsule of worthy plays to be unearthed by future theatrical treasure hunters.

By Paul Enger
Produced and Directed by Tom Ferriter
Cast: Jeanine Bartel, Nisi Sturgis, Preston Dane, Celia Howard.
Set Design: Zhanna Gurvich
Costume Design: Kristine Koury
Lighting Design: Jeffrey Koger
Sound Design: Guy Sherman/Aural Fixation
Original Music: Cindy O'Connor
Choreography: Daniel Haley
Running time:2 hours and 15 minutes, includes one intermission
Stageplays at THEATRE 315 at 315 West 47th Street SmartTix 212-868-4444
From 10/12/05 to 11/27/05; opening 10/20/05
Tuesday through Saturday evenings at 8 PM, Sunday evenings at 7 PM, with as Saturday matinee at 2 PM.
Tickets: $45 with discounts available for senior citizens, students, and groups.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 10/18 press performance
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