BACK STAGE WEST
August 12, 1999
at the Black Swan
Who knew? All Ellen McLaughlin's dense, gnarly play Tongue of a Bird needed was to be grounded for it to really take off. In its Mark Taper Forum premiere earlier this year, McLaughlin's drama about a search-and-rescue pilot in denial seemed arid and portentous, more poem than play, and even an estimable cast that included Cherry Jones, Marian Seldes, Sharon Lawrence, and Diane Venora, under director Lisa Peterson, couldn't give its words a theatrical pulse.
This new Oregon Shakespeare Festival production under director Tim Bond has the huge advantage of intimacy: The three-quarters-in-the-round Black Swan theatre puts us in the midst of both the conflicted pilot's stubbornly earthbound struggles and her airless Cessna flights, and its low ceiling forbids any Flying-by-Foy trickery in the ghostly appearances of her long-dead mother--a major distraction at the Taper, where Sharon Lawrence hovered, tilted, and whirled over Jones' sleepless bed as a teasingly surreal vision. Here, an appropriately spectral Suzanne Irving merely slides in on a platform, just above the action, in her Amelia Earhart get-up, suggesting flight but more precisely a kind of motionless suspension--more dreamlike, really, and closer to the elevation at which this messed-up mom left the world, and left her young daughter, Maxine, to grow up with a hole in her life the size of the sky.
Indeed, combing the sky is where the now-thirtyish pilot Maxine (Robin Goodrin Nordli) is in her element, but she knows it's also a way to escape herself--to cut loose from her own life, to look down on it instead of living it. As a character, too, Maxine is one of those impossible roles in which an actor must stand just outside it to deliver commentary and live it in the moment. That Nordli does both is the key to her success: She nails the breathless poetic monologues, which tell us rather than show us what Maxine is going through, with a self-deprecating, guardedly confessional tone--she does slightly pained, chin-up spunk like no one else, without cloying--but she also manages to show us Maxine's cathartic arc across the play's schematic sky.
Perhaps most crucially, and heartbreakingly, she keeps all this self-discovery--which involves those apparitions by her mother and a girl (Brigitte Loriaux) who may be the one whose search mission she's taken on--close to the vest; it's an inward journey she doesn't share except with us. When Maxine is with Dessa (BW Gonzalez), the freaked-out mother of that lost girl, or her contrary Polish grandma (Dee Maske), who encourages and role-models Maxine's isolation, she shuts down like a hangar door. Only we can see her wheels spinning like the propeller fan at the back of William Bloodgood's sere set.
All the actors root the music of McLaughlin's flightier language in solid, clear character voices, which makes it sing all the more. I quibble only slightly with Gonzalez's Dessa, who is too lovable a mess, making her reveries about her daughter touching but her angry resentment at life forced. (Gonzalez also definitively renders the title role of OSF's Good Person of Szechuan this season; the beatific glow seems to have seeped over.)
Bloodgood's coldly corrugated scenic design is warmed by Derek Duarte's lights, while John J. Gibson's sound design and Russ Appleyard's music blur into unnerving glossolalia. By grounding itself in the play's harshest paradoxes rather than its most obvious thematic thrusts, this is a Bird that earns its wings. It flies higher by burrowing deeper.
"Tongue of a Bird," presented by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival at the Black Swan, 15 S. Pioneer St., Ashland. July 6-Oct. 31. (541) 482-4331.