Steppenwolf's 'Up' Is Emotionally Grounded

Sat. July 4, 2009 12:00 AM
by Michael J. Roberts

An interesting study on dreamers being bounded in reality and adulation, Walters found it impossible to settle back into his family routine and committed suicide by shooting himself in the heart at the age of 44.

Walters' story is now on stage at Steppenwolf with Bridget Carpenter's 2002 drama ‘Up', which chronicles his later years of depression and the toll it takes on his family. Directed by Anna D. Shapiro, ‘Up' has all the ingredients of being an incredibly resonate work and with an incredibly talented cast, the story couldn't be in better hands. Even with all the basics going for it, ‘Up' never gets off the ground because of one glaring problem. Ms. Carpenter's script is fatally flawed in developing any type of arch for the characters. From the outset of the play we see the Griffin family (changed from Walters) already in the midst of emotional turmoil dealing with the psychological falling out of the inventor/patriarch, Walter (Ian Barford). The strain this causes with his wife (Laren Katz) and son (Jake Cohen) are palpable but in the end, unemotional because we never get a glimpse of what makes Walter tick and why he has ended ‘Up' such a broken man.

The key to unleashing the emotion is to allow the audience to invest in the main character and to allow us to understand just how dashed Walter's dreams have been for most of his life. This begins with his not being accepted into the Air Force and instead of taking to the sky, Walter is left to take a mundane trucking job (the metaphor of this being tied down to the road would be a playwright's dream), his ascension and accolades from his lawn chair flight and his ability not to face reality after reaching the stars. That is a real story arch that an actor can sink his teeth into. Instead, as Walter, Ian Barford is left with a one dimensional man who gets gains no sympathy from his on lookers while Lauren Katz becomes almost whiny as his long suffering wife.

Jake Cohen is quite gritty as Mikey, the son who feels the need to defends his father's Quixotic dreams while knowing that the real life day to day task of working to support a family are his future. The never disappointing Martha Lavey gives the action some much needed levity as a psychic/office supply saleswomen gypsy, who has her daughter (nicely played by Rachel Brosnahan) manipulate and use Mikey to the point where he is left with no grounding whatsoever.

In a needless theatrical stunt, Carpenter feels compelled to continuously foreshadow Griffin's suicide by having tightrope walker Philippe Petit (Lookingglass' Tony Hernandez) have one on one conversations with Walter that do nothing to expose the characters' motivations but instead just prepare us for the inevitable.

Scenic designer Dan Ostling has created a duplicit environment for the story to unfold, but on land and in the sky and Ann G. Wrightson's lighting design is a vibrant array of different hues that illuminate the atmosphere.
‘Up' plays through August 23 at Steppenwolf's DownstairsTheatre, 1650 N. Halsted St., Chicago. For more information, please visit or call 312.335.1650.