Dennis Reardon’s new play "The Last Days of the High Flyer" at the IU Theatre is set in 1963 with flashbacks to 1960 and 1961. Some plays are relatively portable. They can be placed almost anywhere at almost any time. "The Last Days of the High Flyer" is rooted in and grows out of the early sixties. The United States’ confidence had been shaken and its bravado wounded. It was a time of turmoil. Internationally Francis Gary Powers’ spy plane was downed over Russia. The invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs was a bloody debacle. Nationally, James Meredith’s arrived at the University of Mississippi to the accompaniment of riots. Medgar Evers in Mississippi and four little girls in Birmingham were murdered.
The physical setting for "The Last Days of the High Flyer" is a small Kansas college town. It’s long way from both the international and the national goings on. Things begin quite innocently as two college buddies, Kevin warmly played by Josh Gaboian and Clyde his empathetic friend, Mike Mauloff, are talking about growing up, sex education, girls and the benefits versus damage of various forms of illegal alcohol. Kevin’s ditzy girlfriend, Darla played by Meg Cionni, is mostly worried about how to become a beauty pageant queen.
These characters from "The Last Days of the High Flyer" aren’t exactly Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn and Becky Thatcher, but that’s not a bad image. Things darken. Kevin learns that his former girl friend, Joanna played with charming pathos by Christina Pumariega, has tried to commit suicide. Things not only darken, but get positively bizarre as a strange grad’ student, Fogarty, played with great depth by Brendan Pentzell, offers Kevin a mysteriously undefined mission with funding from anonymous non-governmental sources. Fogarty is an inscrutable man. Was he a U-2 spy plane pilot, a "high flyer?" Did he pilot helicopters in a secret war in Laos? Is he a benefactor or some sort of Mephistopheles?
The IU Theatre has given Reardon’s play a really fine production. Under Dale McFadden’s direction every member of the cast does a thoroughly believable and accomplished job. I’ve mentioned only five, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t continue with Phil Kasper, as the nasty college administrator, Phipps, and Renee Racan as the mad Queen Christina of the mental institution where Joanna is kept.
The scenic design for "The Last Days of the High Flyer" is by Edward Haynes. The stage is surrounded by what looks like a giant steel cage, perhaps a prison. It’s a mechanical place. Kevin’s apartment and Fogarty’s apartment on opposite sides are behind heavy panels that slide up and down, a little like garage doors. The college alcove in the rear is also revealed with the sliding of a panel. In Reardon’s play the initial action seems dwarfed by the set. Development is relaxed perhaps even slow. As things pick up the action fills the stage and in the last scenes it is physically contained, but seems to spill out. I wished for a little more early motion and for some editing in the lengthy speeches of the final scenes.
The early 60s was a very important time. With the Beetles and Bob Dylan, the music culture was in spin. The passion of the Civil Rights Movement was high. A young popular President, John F. Kennedy– "a guy who could tell a joke"– was killed and his assassin gunned down. The secret war in East Asia was becoming less and less secret. It was a time whose changes society is still coming to terms with. "The Last Days of the High Flyer" is a dramatic visit for younger theatregoers to a crucial period in America and a reminder for older ones.
Dennis Reardon’s "The Last Days of the High Flyer," directed by Dale McFadden plays in IU’s Ruth N. Halls Theatre at eight o’clock each evening through Saturday.