This show has structural problems; some of the dialogue is didactic and high-context; one of the actors is fighting her lines a bit and another is a little over the top. Nonetheless, it has such an enormous beating heart, and the actors are so committed to the playwright’s vision, that it is impossible not to be moved by it, or to not accord it the respect it deserves.
Frank Fletcher (Christopher Michael Todd) is a teacher in a D.C. public middle school, and a good one – someone who has managed to rivet the attention of the drug-addled, malnourished, gang-terrified, father-abandoned, underfunded, institutionally ignored children who, temporarily, inhabit his classroom. It requires a superhuman effort – for example, because there are no funds for textbooks, Fletcher must literally create his own – and thus only a superman can do it.
A Superman or – The Skywriter, which is Frank Fletcher’s secret identity. As The Skywriter, Frank Fletcher (wearing an incredibly cheesy costume) beats up rapists and drug dealers and turns them in to the cops; embarrasses politicians and bureaucrats who have turned their backs on Washington’s children, and…makes his students do their homework.
Or…o.k., this is probably the real story. Fletcher is a paranoid schizophrenic, who believes that Satan (Ricardo Frederick Evans), in the form of the D.C. Metro System, has given him special powers to hear and understand the cries of others, and to answer their prayers. When Fletcher is on his meds, he’s the best teacher in the school; when he’s not, he’s that and…something a little bit more.
It falls to his teaching assistant, Elizabeth Finch (Genevieve James) and his principal, Mr. Cooper (Evans), to suss out the mystery of Frank Fletcher. The stakes are particularly high because Cooper’s daughter Lorena (Lynn Bandoria) is a student of Fletcher’s, and one of his most belligerently intransigent ones. When The Skywriter is not using his superpowers to fight crime, he is using them to nag Lorena into college. And as many other kids as he can take with her.
Look. This isn’t a perfect show, or a perfect production. There are far too many brief scenes, and scene changes, for a sixty-minute show to have. Playwright Seamus Sullivan meanders onto the soapbox now and then, such as when he has Principal Cooper rant about the unfair obligations that No Child Left Behind has imposed on him. Occasionally an actor will wander off the path of absolute authenticity.
But, here’s the thing: this is a story about heroism, and lunacy, done in an age in which we’ve lost the ability to distinguish between the two. And like that other lunatic hero, Big Chief of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Skywriter prevails. He goes to be with the other lunatics. The ones who know, as the Jimmy Stewart character says in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, that the only cause worth having is a lost one. The ones who teach, against impossible odds, in urban school systems. The ones who labor to bring peace between Arabs and Jews. The ones who practice surgery in huts in Africa and South America, where the power might go out at any minute. The ones who comfort the dying.
Note: Director Hunter Styles is a colleague of mine at DC Theatre Scene. This has not affected the objectivity of my review.