January 21, 1999
at the Mark Taper Forum
Reviewed by Rob Kendt
More poem than play, Ellen McLaughlin's Tongue of a Bird is as icy and desolate as the expanse of Adirondack mountains over which her heroine, the solitary search-and-rescue pilot Maxine, roams in her Cessna looking for signs of an abducted girl. McLaughlin's themes are all stated, and restated often, in the crystalline but unaffecting monologues she gives her characters—three generations of independent-minded women who turn to the skies, either literally or figuratively, for solace and end up isolated, disembodied, whether in madness, forgetfulness, or restlessness.
But in Lisa Peterson's curiously stiff new production, it is only in the play's dialogues, especially between Maxine (Cherry Jones) and the nervous-wreck mother of the lost girl (Diane Venora), that Tongue of a Bird gets a pulse going. Elsewhere, it is tough to watch the brilliant, sympathetic Jones—who exudes a seemingly effortless, down-home authority even in Maxine's most vulnerable moments—have to work so hard to give her long speeches drama. She fares little better in the limply surreal passages in which McLaughlin has the ghost of Maxine's mother (Sharon Lawrence) hover overhead in an Amelia Earhart get-up, or has the bloodied specter of a girl who might be the object of Maxine's search (Ashley Johnson) rollerblade teasingly around her. For all their superficial peculiarity, both visions are predictably there to help Maxine toward closure—as is Maxine's Polish-American nana (Marian Seldes), who, with her cute immigrant abruptness and vim, might as well be a vision, too.
Presumably Maxine's hallucinatory mid-life crisis is provoked by her current search-and-rescue case. It's a strained, literal-minded metaphorical connection—searching, flight, mothers and daughters—but it does give us Venora's character, Dessa, a logorrheic parody of a single mom who yearns desperately to do something about her daughter's absence. In Venora's expert and fearless hands, Dessa is funny, pathetic, and moving; her scenes with Jones' rueful Maxine on a nighttime Cessna flight are the production's emotional high point—but not, unfortunately, the play's.
Rachel Hauck's blue-sky set is distinguished mainly by its absence, which is about right, but the multi-leveled sliding-door exits and entrances, complemented by Mary Louise Geiger's dramatic lighting, are patly portentous, as is Gina Leishman's two-tone music/sound design (ominous low notes for the heavy recovered memories, skidding pan flutes for the ponderous tonal shifts). Indeed, if Peterson's production feels stylized but strangely uninflected, aestheticized but artless, it may be because beneath all of McLaughlin's imagery and language, Tongue of a Bird is quite a conventional narrative of emotional loss, recovered memory, and pyschological healing. But like that ghost floating above Maxine, McLaughlin renders it from an airless height when what it could use is a lot more earth under its feet.
"Tongue of a Bird," presented by the Center Theatre Group and the Joseph Papp Public Theatre at the Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., Downtown L.A. Jan. 14-Feb. 7. (213) 628-2772.