It’s tough to make onstage, artsy scenes of military combat flight seem realistic, but Ford’s Theatre’s Fly manages to pull off something more important: making us really care whether those aircraft pilots make it to the ground safely.
Fly is inspired by the experiences of World War II’s Tuskegee Airmen, the first African-American military aviators in the United States armed forces (some of the real-life veterans were in the audience opening night, adding to the emotional impact of the performance). Trey Ellis’s and Ricardo Khan’s play is particularly interested in the journey of four pilots: Chicago ladies’ man W.W. (Eric Berryman), cultural crusader Oscar (Mark Hairston), snarky British West Indies native J. Allen (Damian Thompson), and overeager youngster Chet Simpkins (Christopher Wilson). The quartet has to deal with not only racism from their instructors and fellow fighters, and the demanding skills that combat flight requires; they also have to get over their own egos enough to see each other as friends and teammates rather than competition and threats.
Fly does a fine job developing the four characters and their evolving relationships in a small amount of time (the show runs about 90 minutes), while still fitting in scenes of training and actual fighting. The four main actors have an easy and realistic rapport; unfortunately, their foil of a military instructor Captain O’Hurley (James Konicek) feels like a blustering cliché. The show, though, is bookended by a pair of unapologetically schmaltzy scenes, as a (theoretically) much-aged Simpson looks back with pride at his time with his unit. Fly often authentically provokes emotion, but can occasionally feel like it’s being manipulative when it veers into such territory.
To show the pilots in flight, director Ricardo Khan* has fashioned large, mirrorlike video screens above the players that blast images of clouds, faraway homes, or even general chaos as the players twist and turn through the skies. It’s an interesting visual that, while abstract, allows the audience to suspend disbelief as the scenes progress. Khan has another storytelling trick up his sleeve: interpretive tap dancer Omar Edwards. Whether Edwards is jogging laps, dodging hateful imagery, or charging out of a training session, his dancing is often charged with doing the emoting for the airmen who are struggling to keep themselves together.
Given the high-stakes nature of the piece, the knee-jerk assumption is that not all of the fighters we meet along the way are going to make it out of the war alive, a thought that lingers each time our protagonists take off into the air. But Fly drives home a message of the importance of the characters’ sacrifice. As W.W. puts it, there are worse ways to die than falling out of heaven.
Fly runs through October 21 at Ford’s Theatre. Running time is about 90 minutes with no intermission. Tickets ($15 to $62) are available via Ford’s Theatre’s website.
*This post has been updated from a previous version.