Flight From Life

Tongue of a Bird helps us decide which memories to keep and which to let go.

Perched atop a high, bare platform and isolated in a pool of bluish-white light, a search-and-rescue pilot talks about why she's devoted herself to serving the needs of others even as she chooses to reside on life's perimeter. Surveying the landscape below, the youthful Maxine (Kristin Erickson) quietly says to the audience, "I look from a great height for what has been lost -- the slight, the rare...I see them as others don't."

As the lights shift, a frantic mother bursts onto the scene and implores Maxine to find her twelve-year-old daughter, Charlotte, who was recently abducted while on a Girl Scout hiking trip in the Adirondack Mountains. Suddenly, Maxine no longer has the luxury of making a worthwhile contribution to society while remaining detached from it.

As Ellen McLaughlin's Tongue of a Bird continues, Maxine intensifies the search for her own lost childhood, an existence that was fractured by her mother's suicide.

Kristin Erickson, Mercedes Magee and Kristen Teig shine in Tongue of a Bird.
Kristin Erickson, Mercedes Magee and Kristen Teig shine in Tongue of a Bird.

Tenderly directed by Joan Staniunas and well acted by a female quintet, the engaging two-hour play is being given its regional premiere at the Denver Civic Theatre by Hunger Artists Ensemble Theatre Company. Despite a few technical glitches and dialogue that's lyrical one minute and bluntly comic the next, the talented actresses manage to sustain the play's dreamlike atmosphere. They also reinforce the playwright's notion that memories are sometimes more immediate and tangible than the distant abstractions they're often thought to be.

While that last idea may take some getting used to, Staniunas and company seem perfectly comfortable with it from the beginning. Shortly after Maxine agrees to take to the skies to find the kidnapped Charlotte, she hears a few unsettling thumps that sound like huge birds hitting her two-seater plane. (Designer Robert Burns Brown's imaginative setting consists of stacked black cubes and recessed seating areas flanked by green and red wing lights.) In a flash, though, a bloodied Charlotte appears in the passenger's seat and strikes up a conversation with Maxine. During later scenes, Maxine's mother hovers over her daughter's bed from a piece of wire rigging -- an imposing image that Staniunas exploits to maximum effect. By the time Charlotte pays a visit to Maxine's grandmother, it's clear that all of these visitations could be either entirely imaginary or utterly real; it's up to us to determine what's true in this inviting netherworld, just as it's up to the characters to decide which of their memories to resurrect and which to keep buried.

While all of the performers deliver fine portrayals, Erickson capably shoulders the burden of being on stage for nearly the entire show. At first it looks as though Maxine will simply avoid all of the emotional phantoms that keep getting in her face. Eventually, though, Erickson reveals Maxine's desperation to reconcile past woes despite her abject unwillingness to do so, mostly because -- just like her mother before her -- she fears losing her grip on reality. Erickson's is a brave, emotionally rich performance that, thankfully, stops well short of touchy-feely self-indulgence.

As Maxine's mother, Evie, Kristen Teig appears to be a decently adjusted person who just happens to be a ghost. Later, Teig makes Evie's fall from grace look as though it was caused by forces beyond her control instead of being a deliberate choice on her part. "We are all the same woman," Evie says of her struggle to hold on to her sanity -- a process that, as she describes it, profoundly reminds us of the human mind's fragility. At the other end of the spectrum, Linda Button rails, cajoles and pleads for help as Dessa, the anguished mother destined to perhaps the cruelest fate of all. Her refusal to return her daughter's overdue library books is full of hope and heartbreak, and her assessment of the future negates volumes of old saws about nobly bearing one's lot in life. As Maxine's grandmother, Mercedes Magee establishes a good rapport with Erickson and also lends warmth and dimension to a play filled with sorrow and upheaval. "Learn to lose what should not be found" is her simple advice. And as the waiflike Charlotte, Sara Smith once again demonstrates a talent for wading through complex material with a child's openness and an adult's maturity.

In addition to lending some nice directorial touches throughout, Staniunas beautifully orchestrates the play's poetic ending. As three generations of women come to terms with what they have done to themselves, each other and their memories, questions of what is forever lost and what abides in life resonate long after the final, uplifting image.

 
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