Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, September 2005
“The springboard for my work is an image — a theatrical image — that can give birth to an entire play. For Tongue of a Bird, the image was of a woman in a 1920’s flight suit — leather jacket, helmet, goggles — hanging in the air. There’s something sinister and inscrutable about it.” – Ellen McLaughlin
Actress and playwright Ellen McLaughlin spent many years hanging in the air herself playing the titular Angel in both parts of Tony Kushner’s Tony-award winning Angels in America It is no wonder that this play, written shortly after the run of Angels should focus on flight – avian and human.
Maxine (Melissa Quirk), a search and rescue pilot with a perfect record of not only finding lost people but finding them alive, is employed by Dessa (Beth Hahn), a desperate single mother whose only child Charlotte (Lindsay Hebb) has been abducted while on a hike in the Adirondacks and has already been missing for eleven days at the start of the play. It just so happens that Maxine grew up in the region, and so she goes to stay in her childhood home with Zofia (Judyth Kanner), the Polish grandmother who raised her, while conducting the search. During the harrowing days ahead, Maxine is haunted by images both of Charlotte and of her mother Evie (Judy Piechel), who committed suicide when Maxine was about five.
In May, when I wrote about Peter Shaffer’s Equus, I commented on the fact that a play is not just written, it is wrought – by a playwright. Some plays are more deeply wrought than others. Tragedy is a genre in which characters are easily overwrought and overwritten, and Tongue of a Bird is a tragedy. If that little bit of mime at the very, very end was supposed to imply a happy future for Maxine, it didn’t convince me. Not since Shakespeare & Company literally wheeled a cart full of corpses onstage at the end of King Lear have I felt such genuine despair and anguish in the theatre.
The fact that I felt so much despite the alarming onslaught of words and symbolism McLaughlin launches across the footlights is a great tribute to director Bruce T. MacDonald and his talented cast at Main Street Stage. This is the kind of intimate drama Main Street and MacDonald do very well, and they do not disappoint on this outing.
MacDonald writes in his Director’s Notes that “The script [of Tongue of a Bird], once I read it, became a passion.” I understand this because I imagine the script reads much better than it plays. Whizzing by as spoken words McLaughlin’s heavy symbolism and attempts at poetic speech are overwhelming. On the page, where they can be read and re-read, and compared and analyzed, they are no doubt quite dazzling. I would like to read the play because I think McLaughlin says much of interest and importance about the difficult roles of mother and daughter, and about loss and our search to understand it.
McLaughlin writes her three living women – Maxine, Zofia, and Dessa – most convincingly, and MacDonald has cast them beautifully. Quirk turns in a solid and moving performance as Maxine. She is completely believable as both a young and successful pilot and as the broken woman who struggles to contain and cope with her loss. Her interaction with both Kanner and Hahn is riveting, as are those two actresses in their roles. While I might argue that a woman who emigrated to America as a child would not have that thick of a Polish accent (and I am not equipped to tell whether or not it is a good Polish accent) or that much trouble with the English language a nearly three-quarters of a century later, I enjoyed Kanner’s performance as the wily and wise Zofia immensely.
Hahn is heartbreaking as the bereaved mother. Dessa is not a woman one immediately embraces with sympathy, but Hahn shows the layers of her personality slowly and deliberately over the course of the play.
The “dead” characters are not nearly as well written, and my feeling was the Pieschel, whose voice I found annoying, and Hebb, who is a child making her stage debut, were the weaker links in the cast, but their weaknesses could well have been magnified by poor writing. Hebb’s role is especially murky. Is this child Maxine is imagining really Charlotte, who she has never met, or a shadow of herself, or both?
Although the script calls for the character of Evie to be airborn, the technical and liability issues associated with hoisting actresses up in the air, keep Pieschel solidly earthbound. It didn’t know that McLaughlin intended Evie to fly until after I saw the play, and I credit Dierdre Bollinger’s imaginative set and MacDonald’s direction with keeping me content with their choices. If I were to see the show again tomorrow, I would still be happy with the way in which Evie was kept separate from Maxine and made to appear “other worldly” without the gimmick of stage flight (you can always see the wires anyway). Bollinger has designed a set that tricks the eye into believing the Main Street playing space is actually more square than narrowly rectangular. All the walls, and there are many of them in this multi-level set which carves out separate spaces for the pilots’ lounge at the local airport, Zofia’s kitchen, Maxine’s bedroom, the cockpit of Maxine’s Cessna, and many other locales somewhere between heaven and earth, are all painted with fluffy white clouds, banks and banks of them, allowing not one glimpse of the earth below.
I was disappointed in the sound design by Douglas MacDonald and Michael Trainor. There were many opportunities they missed, and many sound effects which were too loud or difficult to identify. When Maxine was up in her plane the sound of the motor was cut completely almost as soon as the actresses started speaking. I have a hearing loss and am sensitive to the difficulty of hearing lines spoken over background noise, but I wanted to be reminded that Maxine was not flying unaided and would have liked to have heard the engine rumble, ever so softly, all during her flight time.
Overall, I would characterize this as an engrossing production of a difficult play, but one well worth seeing. This is such a detailed and poetic play that it would be interesting if MacDonald and his cast offered some opportunities for dialogue with the audience after the show. I am sure that the actors, particularly Quirk, are physically and emotionally drained after the performance, but perhaps those who felt up to it could speak and MacDonald could offer a more rounded view of the play as a whole.
I have to say that Main Street Stage has really pulled itself up by the bootstraps of late. The place looks great – even the restroom was clean and nicely decorated. They have comfortable new seating acquired from the recently demolished DownStage theatre at Williams College. Their recent posters and programs have boasted handsome graphics by David Lane. Their Web site http://www.mainstreetstage.org has been given a make-over. This is a little theatre that has always been capable of doing good, sometimes brilliant, work and now it looks worth your time and money. I encourage you to support them this season and in the future. I was delighted to hear that a group from MCLA had filled the house the day before I attended. That is the kind of collaboration between our artistic and educational institutions which can only benefit all involved.
The Tongue of a Bird runs Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. through October 8, with 4 p.m. matinees on Sundays September 11, 18, 25 and October 2. The show runs two and a half hours with one intermission. This is a tough show and I wouldn’t take children under 16. For reservations or more information call Main Street Stage at 413-663-3240 or visit their Web site. The theatre is located at 57 Main Street in North Adams, a few doors east of Papyri Books.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2005