History took a fanciful flight Friday at Portland Stage with the world premiere of Gregory Hischak’s “The Center of Gravity (or, the Disinvention of the Airplane).” The play seamlessly folds time and inverts reality, as we know it, to tell a fascinating, fictionalized tale of two of history’s most private inventors, the Wright brothers.

Other than the fact that Wilbur and Orville Wright flew the first man-powered flight on Dec. 17, 1903, what do we really know about them?

The details of their lives have been reduced to a few footnotes in history: They grew up in Dayton, Ohio, in the 1800s; they were two of seven children; Wilbur was four years older than Orville; their father was a strict minister; their mother died in 1889; both were consummate bachelors; Wilbur died of typhoid in 1912 at age 45; Orville died in 1948 at age 77.

The brothers largely kept their personal lives out of the press. As a result, their identities have become blurred, making the two almost indistinguishable in history, eclipsed by flight. But what if events had played out differently?

Fascinated by this notion as a boy in Dayton, playwright Hischak cleverly crafted an alternate reality based on a series of “what ifs.” What if Wilbur and Orville were the only children and grew up as rival muses for each other? What if their mother hadn’t died in 1889 and continued to be a quirky influence? What if Orville married a woman with whom both men fell in love? And, most importantly, what if it were their competitor, Samuel Langley, who successfully flew the first flight and the Wright brothers’ plane literally crashed and burned in 1903?

“The Center of Gravity” upends everything we know about the Wright Brothers, reversing their personalities and rewriting their fate. It morphs forward and backward in time in a whimsical, dreamlike way that challenges our concept of the passage of time. And, through the subversion of scientific terminology and theology, Hischak has created poetic dialogue that crackles with wit.


Christopher Kelly (Wilbur Wright), Matt Harrington (Orville Wright), Sophia Holman (Orville’s wife, Margot) and Maureen Butler (the brothers’ mother, Lillian) vivaciously bring the play’s characters to life.

Harrington, Kelly and Holman magically become the younger and older versions of their characters mid-sentence, without skipping a beat and with only a change in demeanor to mark the change in age.

Butler is a riot as the re-invented eccentric mother. Her character highlights the rapidly changing world at the turn of the century into the 1900s with clueless ramblings and bungled terminology. Butler never failed to elicit laughter Friday with her perfectly timed delivery.

“The Center of Gravity” comes to Portland Stage as the 2009 winner of the Clauder Competition, a contest adjudicated by Portland Stage that identifies new works by New England-based playwrights. It’s a fresh, intriguing look at what might have been and what never was.

April Boyle is a freelance writer from Casco. She can be contacted at:



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