On a bright summer day in 1989, United Flight 232 took off from Denver’s Stapleton Airport for Chicago, lost power, and crashed in a cornfield near Sioux City, Iowa, upside down and in flames. The accident represented every traveler’s worst nightmare: the plane that seemed to break into pieces in the sky, the pilot trying desperately to gain enough control for a landing. Perhaps you’ve wondered — or tried hard never to wonder — what goes through the minds of passengers before and during a crash like this. How would you cope? The difference between flight 232 and most plane crashes, however, is that while 112 people died, 185 survived — thanks in large part to the skill of the crew. Author Laurence Gonzales, an expert on survival, interviewed the survivors for a book, Flight 232: A Story of Disaster and Survival, which was adapted for the stage by Vanessa Stalling as United Flight 232. Now the Catamounts have mounted a regional premiere of this powerful piece.
As you file into the theater, you notice that the relatively open playing space is bare except for groupings of metal chairs in corners and along walls. Some of these are set down sideways, some appear to be under a spotlight. We’re asked not to occupy or move them; when the play opens, we see why. The chairs are seized by the actors at various times during the performance and strategically placed to represent various parts of the aircraft. Much of the work of scene-setting is accomplished by Matthew Schlief’s lighting design. Director Amanda Berg Wilson made the smart choice not to employ a lot of technical whizbangery, but to keep the focus tight on the people in the story: the nine actors, almost all of them playing multiple roles, and also the real-life flight attendants, crew members and passengers they bring to life.
Running at eighty minutes, this is the second short, very intense play dealing with life and death that I’ve seen recently. Benchmark staged Will Eno’s Wakey Wakey in January, offering a stunning performance by Augustus Truhn as a man dying before our eyes, fading in and out of consciousness, trying to put together scattered bits of memory. United Flight 232 uses a larger canvas, and the intensity it generates is more diffuse. The script does make you think about your own mortality, but it’s not laser-focused on the process of dying as is Wakey Wakey. You’re thinking about the ways in which human beings respond to fear and threat. How would it feel to know that even while the in-flight movie keeps playing and a flight attendant, hand shaking, fumbles a miniature bottle of vodka for you, you’re almost certainly minutes away from annihilation? Would you have enough mental coherence to contemplate the shape of your life? Could you meditate yourself into peacefulness? Would your first impulse be to find a way of helping?
You watch the interactions among passengers and crew with fascination as they withdraw into themselves, find an instant bond with a neighbor, or create a reassuring set of signals to help each other navigate. You note how important life experiences and specific kinds of training become in crisis: the sports fanatic who starts envisioning himself and his fellow passengers as a team; the Vietnam vet, springing into action; the people with relevant expertise entering the cockpit to try and advise the flight staff. Meanwhile, the flight attendants go about their work, adhering to those rules that just a little earlier seemed so silly — “When the seat belt sign goes on, you must fasten your seat belts...” — and now feel like a lifeline. They stay calm. They give orders. They help with recalcitrant buckles. Habit has kicked in. Among a group of strong performers, Karen LaMoureaux stands out as the chief flight attendant with her sorely tested discipline, her sorrow when she fails to save a passenger.
The play raises another pressing and impossible question: Why did this passenger survive and that one die? What random shake of the eternal dice caused a businesswoman to lose her first-class seat, which ended up shredded, and land in the plane’s last row, where, improbably, she was safe? Fate is a mean and unreadable joker.
United Flight 232, presented by the Catamounts through March 9, Dairy Arts Center, 2590 Walnut Street, Boulder, thecatamounts.org.