"Air Heart" at the Theatre Project | WYPR

"Air Heart" at the Theatre Project

Apr 28, 2014

Mara Neimanis in "Air Heart."
Credit Elliott Kirschbaum

Maryland Morning theater critic J. Wynn Rousuck reviews "Air Heart," the new aerial production at the Baltimore Theatre Project.

"Air Heart" continues until May 4. 

The Rousuck Review: "Air Heart" at the Baltimore Theatre Project. 

“Air Heart” continues at the Theatre Project through May 4

There are few subjects as ideally suited to an aerial performance piece than Amelia Earhart. 

The famed aviatrix, who disappeared over the South Pacific in 1937, is the subject of Mara Neimanis’ one woman aerial play, “Air Heart.” That’s two words: “air,” a-i-r, and “heart,” h-e-a-r-t .

Earhart’s plane crashing – or more accurately, disappearing – comes up near the beginning and at the end of Neimanis’ piece, currently at the Theatre Project. Speculation is made of what might have saved the record-breaking pilot: If only she knew Morse Code; if only she had not left her parachute and her raft and her communication wire behind.

And yet, there’s a sense of great joy and wonder when Neimanis talks about flight and especially when she hoists herself up onto – and into – the metal airplane sculpture that is the central feature of the set. Lying across the top of the plane with her arms outstretched, she becomes a bird, at one with the air and sky.

Neimanis created her script from a combination of factual data about Earhart’s flights, routes and radio communications and a series of fictitious letters, primarily to her friend, Eleanor Roosevelt.

Earhart was an international celebrity – in great demand on the lecture circuit. Recorded snippets of Earhart’s accomplishments are interspersed among her dizzying rounds of speaking engagements. 

Eventually Neimanis’ Earhart loses track of which city she’s in and which group she’s addressing. But the lecture tour is necessary to help finance the flights that continue to pile up her achievements.

You won’t learn a great deal about Earhart’s biography from this piece.

The play – directed by Bryce Butler – isn’t about where Earhart was born, grew up, etc. It’s about her great love affair with flight.  Neimanis is portraying Earhart’s spirit – tough, independent, courageous, feminine, tomboyish – and only truly, completely happy when airborne.

Suspended in the metal airplane sculpture, created by Laura Shults and Tim Scofield, Neimanis’ Earhart is in her element, at one with the sky. A mere downward glance can convey that she is 8,000 feet in the air.

The mystery of what went wrong on her final flight is a recurring thread. When her plane runs into trouble, Neimanis’ movements become jerky, desperate.

There’s also a recurring thread about feminism. Earhart isn’t just blazing an aeronautical trail, she’s a strong proponent of women’s rights.

Recorded music – mostly by British composer Jocelyn Pook -- accompanies much of the production. Its New Age sound feels out of place with this 1930s subject. The liturgical-sounding sections, however, are more appropriate. Flying was practically a religion for Earhart. 

The bodies of Amelia Earhart and her navigator have never been found. Neither has any trace of their plane. It’s a loss that, today, eerily echoes the disappearance of Malaysian Flight 370. But unlike those passengers, Mara Neimanis’ Earhart was clearly doing what she loved best. And like Neimanis herself, the late great flyer comes alive when she is aloft.

-- J. Wynn Rousuck