Raleigh Little Theatre brings a delightful yet substantial work to the stage of the Gaddy-Goodwin Theatre with Susan Zeder's charming When She Had Wings, the story of one little girl and a persistent memory that won't let her go. Director Patrick Torres takes Zeder's unique little one-act and puts RLT's stamp on it, creating the backyard of "B" with care and whimsy, and using onstage sound effects and original music written just for this production to bring the characters of this supremely entertaining show to life.
B (Lilly Overton) – that's B for Beatrix, but she prefers B – has a problem. B has a persistent memory of once being able to fly. She was very young at the time, but remembers it clearly, how exhilarating it was, and what a sense of freedom it gave her. Her problem is that in three days, B turns ten – double digits – and if she doesn't remember how to fly by that time, she fears – no, she knows – the memory, and the ability, will be lost.
B's heroine is Amelia Earhart. She knows the history of the pilot backwards and forwards, her accomplishments, and even what there is to be known about her mysterious last flight. B tries to emulate Earhart in the self-designed cockpit she has erected in her treehouse. It is a marvel of ingenuity and construction, and comes complete with radio headset and headlights. The plane sits in the side yard of B's home in Nebraska, alongside her dad's beds of tulips and his ever-increasing collection of Garden Gnomes.
B, who should be looking forward to her tenth birthday – the big 1-0! – instead has the weight of the world upon her shoulders. B is a stocky little girl whose mother is obsessed with her weight. Mom has already discussed with B's dad (the chameleonesque Aaron Young) B's upcoming attendance at her second "fat camp," to which B has already voiced strong objection. But Mom's constant reference to B being overweight has added to her consternation on being able to fly; weight is one of the four factors necessary to fly, and B is afraid hers is too much, and her flight ability will be lost. This has put B into overdrive; she must remember how to fly NOW, or she will lose the ability forever.
Aiding B on her quest to fly is a pair of airfield attendants: her wingman, Emma Johnson, and her Sound Op, Paul Jones, who supplies a never-ending series of intrepid sound effects to the entire show, from thunder and lightning to wind and rain. These two aids are a sort of angel, and are there to help B with her plight, but keep her safe as well.
The falling of night and the coming of a thunderstorm have brought to B's cockpit a visitor (Rhonda Brocki). This visitor is a marvel. She seems to be a woman, but she has very bird-like qualities; she doesn't speak at first, but she learns language amazingly fast; and she seems to be there specifically to help B with her problem. B is captivated, and comes to believe that A – A for Amelia, because that's who B believes she is – can do just what B needs and teach her to fly.
All of this took place on a set designed by Duncan Jenner, which included a sensational airplane cockpit built on a treehouse platform; three carefully-tended raised beds of tulips; a delightful full moon; and an astonishing flying ring, which dropped down from above so that A could exercise. Brocki did an elegant solo dance on this ring, relaying to us not only that A can fly, but that she can probably help B to fly, as well.
Raleigh Little Theatre brings us a delightfully whimsical play about dreams, overcoming obstacles, and the just plain stick-to-it-tiveness that sustains a small ten-year-old child and allows her to overcome her plight and attain her goals. The show is a vehicle for a marvel of a young actress, Lilly Overton, who must be acclaimed, if for no other reason than that she has the gargantuan portion of dialogue in this show, and must expend gallons of energy and enthusiasm. Wings is her show, and everything depends on her ability to keep us with her, which she did superbly opening night. Overton is a fourteen-year-old who already has an impressive resume, and who should continue to do great things on stage. Kudos, too, to Rhonda Brocki, who kept us guessing whether her role was bird or human, whether she was real or imagined, and whether she really was, if not the real Amelia Earhart, then her spirit, at least. And a massive round of applause goes to Aaron Young, who plays three widely disparate and challenging roles in the space of this one hour, and who recreates a role as Dad that is so subtle and realistic that, when he changes roles, one must wonder if they really are all played by the same person. This five-actor cast brought a stirring script to stirring life, aided all the while by a wonderful original score by Christopher Baine, which added immeasurably to our enjoyment.
All in all, When She Had Wings is a children's show that isn't just for children. Not only would any child get a kick out of it, it is a lesson to be learned by all of us, child or not, about being persistent and following your dreams. This compact little dynamo of a play is a winner, and you would do yourself a favor by going to see it, along with however many children you can bring with you.
When She Had Wings continues through Sunday, April 2. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.