Playwright Matthew Heiti “hates” biopics and biographies. So it seems a bit unusual that the subject for his newest play — having its world première at Lunchbox Theatre — is none other than aviatrix Amelia Earhart.
“I like mythical reimaginings of history,” Heiti says, trying to clarify the apparent discrepancy.
“You never want to be locked in. That’s what horrifies me about biopics. Ostensibly, they try to tell the true story, and they can’t possibly do that in two hours. They make judgments, leaps of faith,” he adds.
As such, Heiti says his play – Aviatrix: An Unreal Story of Amelia Earhart — is a story, not the story.
“I’m trying to present Amelia as a ghost or a memory, rather than as a real person. I’m ripping off the idea of the collective memory of her in our societal consciousness,” he explains.
Heiti says what is fascinating about Earhart is not so much her many achievements — including becoming the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean — but the fact that the mystery surrounding her disappearance is lodged more firmly in the collective imagination than any of her accomplishments.
“It’s the story after the story we are most interested in,” he says.
Lunchbox artistic director Pamela Halstead directs Aviatrix, which features Chantal Perron as Earhart.
Audiences join the pilot as she recounts her final flight in 1937, in which she attempted to circumnavigate the globe, only to disappear over the Pacific Ocean. The voice of Earhart’s navigator, Fred Noonan (Tyler Rive), is also heard throughout the play.
“Fred’s voice may be seen as a sort of demonic presence that represents Amelia’s doubts in herself,” Heiti says.
The play starts as Earhart loses radio contact with the United States Coast Guard ship stationed on Howland Island, Earhart’s intended destination when she vanished.
“Structurally, the play begins with the disappearance. It then goes back to the beginning of her flight, then works its way back to the crash,” Heiti says.
The character of Earhart takes the audience on a journey with her, retracing her flight, stopping at every port of call.
“We realize she’s getting closer and closer to the end. It’s really a play about mortality, about what we leave behind us when we go,” Heiti says, adding that the idea of legacy has always “fascinated” him.
Following Earhart’s disappearance, a number of explanations — some preposterous — circulated. Heiti also addresses these in his play.
For example, there were rumours she was spotted several years after her disappearance in Japan. Another theory says she was one of a group of women who spread Japanese wartime propaganda under the moniker Tokyo Rose. Another story says she was actually a spy for the United States, while another suggested she had returned home and assumed a new identity.
While people still embark upon expeditions to try and find the remains of her plane — and solve the mystery as to Earhart’s ultimate end — Heiti says one of the most likely theories to emerge so far is that Earhart and Noonan missed Howland Island, landing on Gardner Island instead, and survived there for some weeks undetected before perishing.
But Heiti isn’t anxious for anyone to find a definitive answer.
“In some ways, it will be a sad thing if the ‘truth’ is discovered, because all truth limits the imagination in some way,” he says.