The Vanishing Point

Porchlight Theatre Ensemble

at the Athenaeum Theatre

By Carol Burbank

Musical theater often inflates biographical facts and figures, entering the realm that poet Audre Lorde has called “mythobiography”–history reimagined as something grand and excessive enough to require bursting into song. When such larger-than-life characters transcend their confusion in tightly set harmony, we can briefly believe in that elusive fantasy, a life shot through with clarity.

Porchlight Theatre’s imaginative world premiere, The Vanishing Point, offers up an impossible meeting in this mythic tradition, bringing together aviator Amelia Earhart, mystery writer Agatha Christie, and evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson. All three women disappeared at some point in their lives; all but Earhart returned after their mysterious absences. Christie fled for a week when she found her husband with another woman; McPherson was ostensibly kidnapped but probably swam away from a beach to meet her lover; and Earhart simply crashed somewhere. Composer-librettists Robert Hartmann and Scott Keys wrench all three from their time and situate them together in space, on an island at the vanishing point on some metaphysical horizon. There they confront their fears and dreams and help each other decide what to do next.

Like many women who are less famous, these three are divided against themselves by the world’s expectations and their own ambitions and needs. The play’s conflicts lie within the characters–and since they’re mysteriously thrust together, with one another as they work through their anxieties and confusions. Keys and Hartmann deserve a lot of credit for their willingness to play with a concept that one might not expect to fly theatrically; yet it has the potential for clever comedy and surprising emotional impact. In this mythobiography, the characters’ iconography blends with the lesser known but fascinating details of their lives to form a quirky musical fantasy that echoes Tom Stoppard, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and various mystery novels.

Hartmann, Keys, the cast, and director Wm. Eric Bramlett make the concept work by creating a subtly shifting dance out of the characters’ attempts to control their island life–using the traits that got them stranded in the first place. McPherson occasionally breaks into preacher mode, tossing out moral anodynes like stale vitamins, giving her companions more dyspepsia than energy. Christie furiously plots mystery thrillers, her mutterings inciting fear in the other two that they’ll be poisoned for real. Earhart pores over a map, trying to chart her way back into the air, hogging the job of navigator-organizer and prompting a fight.

These alpha-female conflicts are interspersed with witty scenes of comic relief that also give the characters an opportunity to reveal some of their life stories. The women perform a Charleston in the “Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder” rag, about the joy of escaping pressures to change themselves to fit a conservative mold. They imagine escape atop a makeshift airplane built with trunks and flotsam; they build sand castles about their work to entertain themselves. Trying to understand one another, they talk in riddles, which are gradually woven into songs, stories, and lyrical ideas reflecting the conflict of love and work in their lives. At one point Christie declares, “Be what you would seem to be. Or if you’d like it put more simply–never imagine yourself not to be otherwise than what it might appear to others that what you were or might have been was not otherwise than what you had been would have appeared to them to be otherwise.”

Clear as mud. Keys and Hartmann’s goofily muddled metaphysics can be almost too arch, and sometimes the actors have to work hard to sell lines like “These are the castles we build / Out of dreams not yet fulfilled.” In fact, after duly admiring the unconventional concept and the hummable melodies and harmonies, I felt that most of the credit for pulling off this risky musical should go to the cast. All three performances are as intense emotionally as they are powerful vocally, making it plain that the occasional redundancies-for-rhyme’s-sake and overdone metaphors in this work in progress are part of a brave attempt to create a playful but unusual structure. Because the actors did their homework, capturing the plainer human emotions of their characters, the musical has a remarkable, winning integrity.

The conflict of independence with love is the show’s main theme, reflected differently in each character. Arlene Hill plays Earhart with pragmatic bluntness. Her sharp-edged, clear voice provides a stylish foundation for the harmonies of the group songs, but she’s particularly impressive in her solo work, giving a steely strength to Earhart’s letter declaring the terms of her marriage (a direct quote from the aviator’s correspondence): “I may have to keep some place / Where I can go to be myself now and then / For I cannot endure the confinement / Of even an attractive cage.”

Tammy Meneghini is particularly powerful as the near hysterical Christie, taking refuge from the pain of her cheating husband and prim childhood in murder-mystery melodrama. Meneghini’s Christie is a woman divided against herself, intellectually powerful but comically obsessed with weaving mysteries out of her emotions as well as in her writing. “The distraught young woman sat pensively in the odd light of a…tropical island” she types, plunked down in the sand of the island, little knowing that she’ll be forced to wake out of her creative self-hypnosis.

I was least disposed to like McPherson, a precursor of televangelists, but Lynn Roof’s hearty performance won me over. She pumps up McPherson’s gestures and facial expressions as if this consummate performer were preaching to a large audience, not two people stranded on a strange island where ideas of Christian morality no longer seem absolute. This healer and preacher, whose affair with her publicist shocked her followers, stages almost every utterance, making herself an icon, yet occasionally she reveals the problems of an ordinary person or expresses the conflicts implicit in her overwhelming, seductive role as evangelist. The effect is subtle. In one scene McPherson describes a healing service, giving what seems at first a self-aggrandizing story the ring of honest exhaustion, facing in her mind the “endless crowd, thousands upon thousands jamming the halls…walking and crawling and being carried….For hours they come.”

A vanishing point is the spot in a perspective drawing at which the world ostensibly continues while disappearing into a single dimensionless dot. All of us have probably wanted to disappear into such a future at some point, a place where anything can happen, including the confessions and new understandings that seem possible only in three-part harmony. A place where we have enough distance on our lives to make sense of our tangled failures, ambitions, and identities.

It’s unusual for musical theater, despite its mythic scope, to establish that perspective, which is more common in one-person shows. But as Earhart remarks in The Vanishing Point, “In case you hadn’t noticed, we’re stuck here.” So why not sing about it? In Keys and Hartmann’s playful experiment, the four A’s–Amelia, Aimee, Agatha, and the audience–come briefly and melodiously unglued in time and space.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): uncredited photo.