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'Flare Path' at Griffin Theater keeps lights on in wartime London

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Joey deBettencourt & Darci Nalepa (1024x705)-1.jpeg

By Hedy Weiss
Theater Critic/hweiss@suntimes.com

When: Through Feb. 24
Where: Griffin Theatre at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont
Tickets: $32
Info: (773) 975-8150; www.GriffinTheatre.com
Run time: 2 hours 25 minutes with one intermission

The nature of life in England during World War II has been captured in scores of plays and films, all of which helped shaped an iconic view of the national character of the period -- one that combined unforced sacrifice, genuine but unshowy patriotism and stiff-upper-lip stoicism.

But a transformative rumble also underscored that wartime existence -- one that changed both the men who headed off into battle and the women who kept life going on the homefront.

Both aspects of this unique era are captured with impressive authenticity in "Flare Path," a rarely seen play by Terence Rattigan (who served as a tail gunner in the Royal Air Force) that debuted in London (and on Broadway) in 1942, became a film ("The Way to the Stars") in 1945, and was successfully revived by Trevor Nunn in a 2011 production in London's West End.

Now, Griffin Theatre, which has a distinguished history of mounting mid-century and contemporary British plays, has brought Rattigan's drama here, with Chicago director Robin Witt (now on the faculty of the University of North Carolina in Charlotte) bringing the tea kettle to a rapid boil with her cast of 11 expert actors.

When mortality looms as vividly it does in war, people alternately become more reckless in their passions, more fervent in their loyalties, and more superstitious. And so it is with all the characters in "Flare Path," which is set in 1940 in the lobby of The Falcon Hotel, a genteel residence near an airbase on the east coast of England (rendered down to the perfect faded floral wallpaper by set designer Joe Schermoly). The "flare path" of the bombers taking off into the dangerous sky is matched by the flare path of the characters' magnified and unsettled emotions.

Among those at the hotel are Lt. Teddy Graham (the outstanding Joey deBettencourt), the bold and boyish pilot responsible for a crew of six, and his glamorous actress wife of a year, Patricia Warren (Darci Nalepa), visiting from London. Warren, it seems, is ready to rekindle an affair with a former lover, Peter Kyle (Paul Dunckel), a Hollywood actor who is British by birth, American by citizenship and in freefall career-wise.

Outside that triangle there is the Countess Skriczevinsky (Vanessa Greenway), a chatty former barmaid who has married a Count -- an emigre Polish pilot (Gabe Franken), who she teases for his poor English, and Sgt. Dusty Miller (Dylan Stuckey), a tense, wiry tail gunner henpecked by his pragmatic, unflamboyant but loyal wife, Maudie (Lauren Pizzi). Adding local flavor to the mix are the prickly hotel proprietor, Mrs. Oakes (Mary Poole), the sassy teenage bartender, Percy (Daniel Desmarias), the fatherly, warm-hearted Squadron Leader, Swanson (John Connolly), and Corporal Wiggy Jones (Connor Culpepper).

The performers bring a fine vulnerability to this beautifully observant period piece ienriched by its design team (sound by Christian Gero, costumes by Izumi Inaba and lights by Brandon Wardell).
Be sure to read Witt's fascinating program note about Rattigan. And let Winston Churchill, a member of the wartime audience, have the last word on the play: "A masterpiece of understatement...but then we are rather good at understatement, aren't we?"

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