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Fly Away: A myth for the moment

Actor Charlie Thurston is a deep thinker, overlaying emotions with reality and connecting thoughts and actions through metaphors, making him perhaps the most likely to pen a “modern meditation” on the ancient Greek tale of a boy who flies wax wings too close to the sun and dies.

His 80-minute play, “Lifted,” opens October 21 as a Wilbury Theatre Group production outdoors at WaterFire Arts Center in Providence. Set in a dystopian, environmentally ravaged near future, the story might not seem any more relatable to modern audiences than the ancient myth of Icarus, but the themes and emotions it conjures could prove timeless.

“A lot of this will resonate right now,” Thurston explains. “Audiences can’t help but wrestle with large systemic issues like climate change, gun violence and the opioid epidemic.”.

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Jim O’Brien from Lifted. Credit: Erin X. Smithers

Written in 2011, “Lifted” arose from Thurston’s disappointment over the demise of the hope that marked President Barack Obama’s first term in office.

“I was all excited for Obama’s first term and the theme was ‘Hope.’ By 2011, we saw how effective the opposition was in squashing that,” he says.

The feeling reminded him of Icarus, who held onto hope that he could fly out of Crete but was dismantled by forces greater than he.

“I look for a central image when I’m writing, and the Icarus tale always captivated me,” Thurston mused. “The wings are a metaphor for the lengths to which we will go to escape.”

“Lifted” is not an adaptation of the myth, but Thurston’s transference of similar themes to a family drama he dubs “theatrical fantasia,” as characters struggle after witnessing a 16-year-old boy carried away by birds.

“This is not your high school English class interpretation of Icarus. We were taught that it’s a tale about hubris, but I’m not interested in perpetuating that theme. The point is to push against things, and to understand that tragedy often happens to the most innocent among us,” Thurston explains.

Thurston’s characters — including the boy’s twin brother, girlfriend and father — face wide-ranging emotions after the boy is taken and the mounting tension comes in waves broken by singing chorus scenes that rouse the audience.

“The three remaining characters deal with their different responses to loss – should they rebel? seek out the birds? – sending them on different trajectories for moving forward,” Thurston said. The father grapples with the guilt of parental failure. “The teenagers [respond by]  trying to be adults but they’re still children.”

Throughout, there are threads of humor, which the playwright believes is necessary to heighten the impact of sadness and heartache on the audience.

“I’m hoping the audience will interpret the liftings in ways unique to their experiences,” Thurston says.

The outdoor performance also lends an expansiveness to the experience of “Lifted,” as city sounds play in the background and stars shine overhead.

“It’s so exciting to do it outside, because the entire play takes place in a backyard, and the sky offers the feeling of freedom, like Icarus sought,” Thurston says.

“Lifted” plays Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 through November 13. Tickets are pay-what-you-can and are available at www.wilburytheatregroup.org

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