The recent spate of It Gets Better videos could easily have been made with the teenage protagonists of Bridget Carpenter’s Up in mind. Fifteen-year-old Mikey, though not gay, is “different” enough to get pushed around and called “faggot.” As for Mikey’s new friend Maria, the six-months-pregnant sixteen-year-old was sent packing when her “drunk bitch” of a mom found out her little girl had gotten herself knocked up.

Then there are the adults in the two teens’ lives. Mikey’s inventor father Walter hasn’t had a legitimate job in as long as anyone can remember and his postal worker mother Helen’s only motivation for sticking with a 9-to-5 she hates is that twenty-year pension just eight years away. Maria’s alcoholic mother is, clearly, no longer in the picture, leaving the pregnant high school sophomore to crash with her Aunt Chris, whose work selling office supplies over the phone has already taken them from Fresno to Temecula to San Diego to San Dimas to Santa Maria to Riverside in the few months they’ve been roomies.

Carpenter’s comedy-drama, now getting its first Southern California production at the Chance Theater, is about more than family dysfunction, however, and that is but one of the reasons it makes such a strong impression. Under Trevor Biship’s imaginative direction, Up’s quirky characters keep you amused and entertained throughout Act One, then make you want to hurl expletives at them (well at least at some of them) as they reveal their darker sides in Act Two.

Theatergoers with kids in grades K through 8 should take note that this decidedly PG-13 play is not a stage version of the animated Disney hit, though like the movie’s Carl, the play’s Walter is consumed with a desire to fly. Based on real-life Larry Walters, who gained his fifteen minutes of fame by tying weather balloons to a lawn chair and flying 16,000 feet over Southern California, Walter has been unable in the fifteen years since that flight to recreate the same magic, though it’s not for want of trying. Meanwhile, wife Helen does what she can to put food on the family’s table, though with her hours about to be cut, it’s time now for Walter to put on a suit and tie and start bringing home some bacon.

Up is about many things, not the least of which is Mikey’s dilemma—how to plan for a future when your two role models are a father who’d rather dream than hold a real job and a mother whose dreams have been all but shattered by her own daily drudgery.

And then something quite miraculous happens. Mikey (or Michael as he’s now decided to call himself) accepts Aunt Chris’s offer to telemarket for her office supplies business, and discovers that not only does he love selling, he’s good at it, so good that his 5% commission earns him more in three months than his mother probably earns in a year.

It all seems too good to be true, doesn’t it?

Since Carpenter’s highly original storyline and quirky-but-real characters could just as easily have found a home at the larger and more prestigious South Coast Repertory, this Southern California Premiere production of Up represents a considerably large feather in the Chance Theater’s cap. Carpenter’s script keeps you guessing throughout, and unless you’re considerably more prescient than this reviewer, Up’s second act will jolt you with several I-didn’t-see-that-coming revelations. The play’s very specific setting—the blue-collar port city of San Pedro—gives us additional clues into these characters working class lives. Despite not being the feel-good comedy its title might seem to suggest, Up is far too funny and far too real to be retitled Down, though there are moments young Mikey might beg to differ.

There’s some very good work being done on the Chance stage, by James Daniel Finnerty as head-in-the-clouds Walter, Lisa Clifton as his long-suffering wife, Jennifer Soo as the spunky, sassy Maria, and Garret Replogle in various roles including real-life tightrope walker Philippe Petit, who most famously high-wire walked between the twin towers of the World Trade Center in 1974. (The unitard-clad Petit appears throughout Up in a series of dream chats with Walter.) Chance Theater Resident Company Member Karen Webster is once again splendid as Maria’s crafty Aunt Chris. Best of all is recent Cal State Long Beach theater grad Scott Dare, achingly real as edge-of-adulthood Mikey.

Perhaps most impressive in the Chance production are scenic designer Bradley Kaye’s responses to the many scene change challenges in Carpenter’s script. Despite a stage area only a fraction of a mid or large-sized theater’s, Kaye succeeds in fitting in both Mikey’s house and Aunt Chris’s without feeling cramped, and if that weren’t already enough, manages with the aid of lighting design whiz Chris Kittrell to transform areas of the stage into perhaps half-a-dozen other locations.  The numerous cords leading up as if to invisible balloons are another nice touch.  Christopher Scott Murillo’s costumes are perfect choices for each character. Ryan Brodkin’s sound design is topnotch as well.

Lauren Morris is associate director, Martin Sopha scenic design assistant, and Breanna Rae Murillo assistant costume designer. Bebe Herrera is stage manager, Jonathon Kolbush assistant stage manager, and Masako Tobaru production manager and technical director.

The Chance Theater has scheduled a discussion after each performance, an indication of just how talk-provoking Carpenter’s play is. A catered reception took the place of the Q & A on Opening Night, however this didn’t prevent audience members from debating the play’s message, themes, and characters. Though Up leaves you wondering what life has in store for young Michael, there can be no doubt that the lessons learned over the course of three tumultuous months have left an indelible effect on this teen on the crux of manhood. The optimistic part of me would like to believe he comes out considerably wiser…and maybe even on the path to greatness.  Let me know what you think.

The Chance Theater, 5552 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim Hills.

–Steven Stanley
October 1, 2011
Photos: Doug Catiller, True Image Studio

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