PORTLAND – Gregory Hischak grew up in Dayton, Ohio, where the Wright brothers were revered as local heroes. The city named parkways and ballfields in honor of the brothers, and their greatness was proclaimed universally.

But no one really knew much about their lives. People knew the brainy brothers achieved flight and satisfied their quest to build a heavier-than-air flying machine.

In a community of tinkerers, where inventors wore pocket protectors as a badge of honor, the Wright brothers stood out as cardboard figures void of personality, Hischak said.

“They seemed bland. Which one was Wilbur? I never knew,” he said. “I still might get it wrong. People in Dayton, where they were everywhere, nobody would know which one is Wilbur.”

It was from that perspective that Hischak began writing his new play, “The Center of Gravity (or, the Disinvention of the Airplane).” Portland Stage Company presents the premiere through March 20.

It’s a magical play about legacy and legend, both of which the playwright turns on its head by reimagining the Wrights as failures.


They loved each other as brothers, but feuded like them, too. Their lives were layered with rivalries and jealousies.

The play asks “what if” — what if they failed, and what if their flaws serve as reminders that the Wrights were merely men? What if greatness was not achieved?

“The Center of Gravity” is a historical fantasy. It’s a funny play based loosely on the fact that Wilbur and Orville Wright committed their lives to inventing a flying machine. But the playwright takes liberties with all aspects of their stories.

Hischak imposes his invented story on historical figures whose personal lives are masked by unknowns.

“They are an open book,” says Hischak, who now lives on Cape Cod. “A clean slate.”

Hischak began his project after coming across a speech the Wright brothers delivered to the Western Society of Engineers in Dayton in November 1903. The passionate quality of the writing impressed him and spurred him to think about the brothers in a different and more personal light.


“It was a lovely piece of writing,” he said of the speech, which he quotes in the play as a recurring theme. He sets the tone of the play to the cadence of the Wrights’ actual words.

Despite coming of age in the brothers’ hometown, Hischak realized he knew little about the men. They occupied a monumental piece of history, but did so relatively anonymously. The confusion between the two — which one is Wilbur? — is a running gag throughout the story.

Paul Mullins, who makes his fourth appearance as a guest director at Portland Stage with this show, answered artistic director Anita Stewart’s call because he loved the script the first time he read it.

“I liked it from the first scene,” said Mullins, a company member at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey.

Mullins began his reading of “The Center of Gravity” knowing little about the Wrights beyond the obvious. As he read on, his intrigue grew. He never knew the Wrights were so interesting, their story so complicated.

Only as he got deeper into the script did he understand that Hischak had pulled a fast one on him.


“As I kept going, I kept saying to myself, ‘Oh, my God, I didn’t know that.’ ‘Oh, my God!’ And then about halfway through, I finally Googled something and realized that none of this happened.”

Hischak tells his story quickly. It moves in a nonlinear sequence among Orville’s memories — some set in Dayton, others on the beach at Kitty Hawk, N.C., where the brothers made history in 1903, and some from the home where he and his wife, Margot, have retired.

It’s a four-person cast, with Wilbur and Orville, their mother and Margot.

Stewart designed a spare, mostly open set with ladders, poles and a ramp that mimics an airplane wing providing a sense of lift.

Christopher Kelly plays the impulsive Wilbur, who is obsessed with human flight and soaring alongside birds. Matt Harrington plays Orville, the more sensible and level-headed of the boys.

Their friendship and tension — that battle for control and balance — is really the pulse of this story. At its core, “The Center of Gravity” is a story about brotherhood.


Maureen Butler, an Affiliate Artist of Portland Stage, plays Mother, and Sophia Holman portrays Margot. Aside from Butler, the other three actors make their Portland Stage debuts with this show.

That also is true of Hischak. He moved to Massachusetts from the West Coast in 2006, which was about the time he began writing this play in earnest.

He submitted it to the Clauder Competition for New England Playwrights in 2009, which provides exposure, encouragement and feedback to promising playwrights.

“The Center of Gravity” won the competition, which carries a cash award and the promise of a production. Portland Stage workshopped the play at the Little Festival of the Unexpected, and now it gets its premiere, with a full set, sound and lights.

Under Stewart’s direction, Portland Stage is a safe haven for new work. This season alone, Portland Stage has mounted three premieres — two back to back, no less: “The Real McGonagall” in the studio theater last month, and now “The Center of Gravity” on the main stage. In November, it premiered John Cariani’s “Last Gas.”

“This theater has an excellent reputation for presenting new work,” Hischak said. “It’s actually pretty famous for it in the theater world. It is very nurturing and enthusiastic. It’s great to be here, because everyone is fawning over me: ‘Oh, the playwright’s here, the playwright’s here.’


It’s great fun for the actors to work on a new piece, too. They have complete freedom to invent their characters, to leave a mark on a show during its formative stage. It’s a chance that few actors get, and it comes with risk and reward, said Kelly.

“Right before I got on a plane to come up here, a veteran actor told me, ‘Working on a new play is the best thing you can do in theater,’” Kelly said.

Added Harrington, “It’s analogous to making this thing fly. It’s an amazing experience.” 

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:


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