KPBS AIRDATE: April 07, 2006
Losing and finding. Flying and crash-landing. Mothers and daughters, sanity and madness. The themes pile up in Ellen McLaughlin’s other-worldly “Tongue of a Bird.” The playwright was best known as the angel who crashed through the ceiling in the Broadway production of “Angels in America.” Still soaring from that experience, apparently, she wrote a flying woman into her 1999 play. Fortunately, in the Stone Soup Theatre production of this local premiere, gifted director Esther Emery chose to find other ways to have the dead mother of the central character make her ghostly appearances. But the play is still fraught with problems.
It’s way too talky, and laced with overlong monologues, though the language is often lyrical and poetic. But it’s weighed down by symbols and metaphors. The title comes from the dead mother’s description of wild, shrieking birds, whose tongues are “black, flattened, moving splinters. And the sounds they make … [are] horrible.” This image is linked to the mother’s recall of her electroshock therapy treatments in a mental institution. Maxine lost her mom early, and she’s spent her life searching – for reasons, for understanding, and for other people. She’s a rescue pilot who’s currently looking for an abducted 12 year-old girl, lost in the snowbound Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York. The mother is frantic. The child appears to Maxine in visions. Maxine’s mother makes repeat appearances as the famously lost Amelia Earhart. Her grandma speaks to her in Polish, of death. Even the Tony Award-winning Cherry Jones couldn’t save the original production.
But Emery, along with her talented husband, scenic designer Nick Fouch, have made a moving experience of this flawed play. The set is a marvel: multi-level platforms, the cockpit of a plane, and two down-to-earth playing spaces. Balancing on a chair, drooping off the overhang, leaning on an angled window-frame high above, is the agile, ethereal Robin Christ, as graceful and edgy as a caged cougar, but outfitted like an aviatrix, until the final moments of revelation and redemption, when she ascends a long staircase in a flowing, diaphanous gown. Gorgeous stage pictures throughout, in this very precise production, underscored by evocative original music by Ruff Yeager, the moody lighting of Valerie Breyne, and the unsettling sound of flapping wings.
Wendy Waddell gives a heartbreaking performance as the anguished mother of the missing girl, who’s energetically played by Abbey Howe. June Gottlieb is delightfully enigmatic as the guarded, cagey grandma, who’s haunted by her own lifetime of losses. Julie Sachs grounds the play with a robust portrayal of the restless flyer, who fears her fate and her own mental health. It’s all about the line between hope and despair, holding on and letting go. Not everything lost can be recaptured.
©2006 Patté Productions Inc.