Fusion Theatre Group
at the Chicago Actors Project
Freud said an uncompleted task is never forgotten. Nor, clearly, is an uncompleted life. If famed aviatrix Amelia Earhart hadn’t disappeared in flight on July 3, 1937, somewhere off Howland Island in the South Pacific, she’d be a lot less than a legend today. Amelia’s goal was to fly her twin-engine Lockheed Electra 10-E around the world, taking the longest, most difficult route–27,000 miles west to east along the equator. Her reason: “I must do it because I must do it. Women must try to do things as men have tried. When they fail, their failure must be a challenge to others.”
Of course the legend as it’s been passed down portrays Earhart as flying alone. Not so. With her was 44-year-old copilot Fred Noonan. His life was also cut short–but Amelia entered the hall of fame.
Why? Partly the luck of an eventful life. After graduating from high school in Chicago, “A.E.” (the androgynous name her friends gave her) became in turn a premed student, nurse’s aide, switchboard operator, truck driver, social worker, teacher of English to foreign students, lecturer, writer, and editor. But her mind was always on flying. In 1922 Earhart bought her first airplane, and three months later she set a women’s altitude record of 14,000 feet.
Fame came in 1928, when an unlikely trio–an alcoholic pilot, an ex-Army mechanic, and Earhart–took off from Newfoundland in a trimotor Fokker flying boat and 21 hours later landed in Wales. The first woman to cross the Atlantic by air, Earhart was an instant celebrity–but she’d only been a passenger, a fact that made her want to be a lot more the next time. She danced with the Prince of Wales, quarreled with G.B. Shaw, and won the U.S. Congress’s Distinguished Flying Cross. The press called her “Lady Lindy,” and to prove she was, in May 1932 she duplicated Lindbergh’s feat by flying solo across the Atlantic–another first for a woman. On that flight a fire broke out in one engine and was only extinguished by an equally dangerous sleet storm. She also set the women’s nonstop cross-country speed record, and was the first person to fly solo from Hawaii to California, from LA to Mexico City, and from Mexico City to Newark.
Then came her mysterious demise. Rumors claimed she and Noonan were on a secret government mission to scout the Truk Islands in the Carolines, territory Japan coveted; before he died Admiral Chester Nimitz supposedly confirmed the story. But the official version remains: Earhart and Noonan overshot Howland, ran out of gas, plunged into the sea, and drowned.
(A woman who closely resembled Earhart was reported to be under Japanese guard on Saipan in 1937; she died of dysentery and the man who was with her was beheaded. U.S. troops also found a file on Earhart in Tokyo, but the file mysteriously disappeared along with other evidence. The three principal researchers of Earhart’s fate are convinced the U.S. government knows the truth and won’t say.)
Laura Annawyn Shamas’s one-woman treatment Amelia Lives!–its title taken from a headline that greeted Earhart’s 1932 flight–certainly works as an unashamed celebration of her adventures. But the play shows too little of the woman who lies behind those feats, and that lack undermines Lawrence Santoro’s energetic Fusion Theatre Group staging.
Her plane about to crash at sea, Earhart’s turbulent, stream-of-consciousness life passes before us for 52 minutes; we’re addressed as if we’re also in the cockpit. Her life includes an alcoholic father and an awkward adolescence–“Meelie” was called “the girl in brown who walks alone.” Earhart blooms only when she sees the barnstorming stunt fliers and “joy hoppers” who loved to buzz crowds and who lived to see how close they could come to a brush with death itself. Earhart is enraptured by her first flight, by the beauty of the tops of clouds and the power and joy of sailing through the sky. Everything else in the script follows from that.
As Shamas depicts her, Earhart is basically a one-note, protofeminist heroine who pursues adventure “for the fun of it.” She refuses to be tied down by a marriage to her millionaire publisher, refuses to accept any fame that comes from luck and not pluck, and refuses to worry about the prospect of death. Antoine de Saint-Exupery this pilot ain’t. (But then can you imagine de Saint-Exupery endorsing Camel cigarettes?)
Romantically throwing a white sash over her leather bomber jacket, bouncing from a map of her final journey to a wooden chair that doubles as a cockpit (and comes to life through Walter Brody’s exciting sound effects), Julia Fabris’s exuberant, adolescent Amelia has a chipper, earnest indomitability that’s both charming and insufficient. Shamas’s script never justifies this outpouring to start with–always a problem with one-person shows. But it’s the lack of conflict that really hurts. With lust for action as its only through line, Amelia’s posterlike life runs in a straight line from nonflight to flight to death. No second thoughts, no regrets. Even in the moment of death Fabris shows little fear and no hesitation–she’s even smiling.
The real Earhart was no suicidal teenager; she was 39 and deeply involved in life. In her last moment, she surely felt far more regret than we ever sense from the cheerfully insipid inventory of Amelia Lives!