Mary Hall Surface and David Maddox have to remind themselves periodically that just over a century ago, human flight seemed impossible.
"A critical feature of the context of the play is that [flying] had never been done before," said Maddox. "It was insanity."
But Maddox and Surface plan to make flight a reality in their production of "Lift: Icarus and Me," a continuation of the Icarus myth commissioned by Theater of the First Amendment, George Mason University’s professional theater company.
Set in Texas just before the renowned Wright Brothers flight of 1903, said Ellen Acconcia of George Mason’s Center for the Arts, "Lift" aims to show how the human spirit can succeed even after initial failure.
"[The musical] is able to take an ancient myth and bring it more to life, to help make it accessible in this day and age," said actress Jennifer Timberlake, whose character, Atalanta, appears in "Lift" on loan from another Greek myth.
"Lift" begins with Lenny, played by Dwayne Nitz, a young man who becomes inordinately interested in flying. Lenny is brought up by his grandfather Daedalus (played by Richard Pelzman) after his father, Icarus, died when an attempt at flight brought him too close to the sun. Daedalus blames himself for the death of Icarus, and so does not tell Lenny about his father or about their shared instinctual need to fly.
But Lenny finds out that Daedalus himself was an inventor of flying machines. After a traveling circus brings tomboy Atalanta to town, Lenny finds his way and learns, literally, to fly.
"LIFT" MARKS another union of Theater of the First Amendment and what Surface calls "intergenerational theater." The theater company has just begun to produce family-friendly musicals and plays, she said. "When we started producing 10 years ago, we didn’t offer this kind of production," said Acconcia.
Besides the theme of dream discovery, she said, "Lift" will also resonate with parents by examining the journey they take as their children grow older.
"Daedalus follows his journey to rediscover his own dreams, and also to forgive himself for what happened to his son," she said. "As a parent, one of the most difficult aspects is what happens when your child leaves home."
Surface, a native of Kentucky, and Maddox, who grew up in North Carolina, have collaborated previously on retellings of Greek legends, such as "Perseus Bayou" and "The Odyssey of Telémaca." But they approached the Icarus myth from another perspective.
"The Icarus myth is so well known by everyone, but the version we know doesn’t touch the richness of the original myth," said Maddox. Today’s telling of the legend does not emphasize the importance of dreaming and instead serves as more of a cautionary tale against trying something new, he said.
"It’s not a good prescription for lifting off in a personal way," said Maddox. The refashioning of the Icarus myth into "Lift" was a way to bring out the positive aspects of the story, he said.
"We like to consider ourselves incubators of new works," said Acconcia.
PRODUCING A play about flight has its own hurdles, said Surface.
"One of the most challenging aspects is figuring out how [the actors] are going to fly," she said. "The set and lighting designers are a big part of trying to make that happen."
Reflecting both the products of imagination and the primitive flying machines of the early 20th century are stage props like a large golden ring, suspended from the rafters, in which Lenny sits. A bike with rakes sticking out of either side is an early attempt at an airplane. And for the plane that ultimately takes flight, two ladders come together while a giant set of wings descends from the ceiling.
Besides Greek myths and early inventors, "Lift" also draws from old Westerns, said Maddox. Timberlake describes her character, Atalanta, as a confident sharpshooter modeled after turn-of-the-century performer Annie Oakley. Timberlake said she hopes the tough and talented Atalanta will present a "mature, confident" female role model to young girls.
To act the part, Timberlake had to learn to juggle and twirl guns, and in the show she reproduces — with a fake pistol — famous Oakley-style gun tricks such as using a mirror to shoot an apple behind her back and shooting a glass bead out of the air.
Setting the play in turn-of-the-century Texas presented Maddox with a variety of musical possibilities.
"Mary Hall [Surface] and I like to write plays set in places familiar to us," he said. "Many times, this is the American South." The musical numbers in "Lift" are set in what Maddox calls "Texas swing" and will be performed onstage by a five-piece band.
"[Texas swing] is an amalgam of musical styles," said Maddox. A combination, he said, not unlike the airplane itself.