New Rep's "Tongue of a Bird": Femmes of a Feather Fly

The cast of "Tongue of a Bird"
(Photo: Rob Lorino)
New Rep’s current production, “Tongue of a Bird”, by Ellen McLaughlin, is the first work of the Inaugural Season of New Rep’s proposed annual Black Box Festival, focusing on themes of dignity and discovery. It’s a promising, if not totally fulfilling, beginning to an admirable plan to present newly minted plays; this season’s efforts will include two one person pieces, “Our Lady” and “In Between”. This initial play concerns women who seek to find a lost loved one or to fly away, like a bird caught in a chimney trying to escape, hoping against hope. It’s worth noting that not only is the entire cast and the director female, but also half of the technical crew. (Though perhaps we’re almost at a place where this need not be deemed noteworthy). Based on the results of so much estrogen in this production, it could be said that it’s past time that we garnered the fruits of a particularly feminine perspective.

Thanks to the talent of a remarkable quintet of fine actresses, ranging in vintage from a sixth grader to an artistic veteran, the mythic roles of women searching and rescuing, being found or not, are presented with haunting imagery. Maxine (a mesmerizing Elizabeth Anne Rimar) is an emotionally scarred pilot with a perfect record of finding those who have been lost. She flies to her childhood home in the snowy Adirondacks to search for Charlotte (the astonishly polished Claudia Q. Nolan, on the brink of becoming a teenager), a missing twelve year old girl. Maxine reestablishes contact there with Zofia (the unforgettable Bobbie Steinbach), her eccentric Polish refugee grandmother. Through her dreams, Maxine is forced to confront memories of her mother, who committed suicide when she was a child herself. She has been hired by Charlotte’s desperate mother Dessa (the powerful Ilyse Robbins) who refuses to accept the likely truth. As the play progresses, Maxine’s dead mother Evie (a complex Olivia D’Ambrosio) makes several well timed appearances. Not surprisingly, given that the playwright herself once appeared as a hovering angel in the original “Angels in America”, other productions of “Tongue of a Bird” have featured Maxine’s angelic mother flying, literally.

Program notes depict the play as a re-thinking of the Greek myth of Demeter searching for Persephone, with Zofia the truth-telling oracle. McLaughlin speaks of the tongues of women blackened by rubber used in electroshock therapy, and many avian images. The concept of flight, literal and figurative, is central to her play, repeated often in her “megametaphorizing” manner. Her words can be virtually poetic at times, but often seem the result of well-intentioned overwriting. It’s the sort of work that must read better than it plays. Thanks to the expert performances of the cast, it nearly overcomes what could all too easily be viewed as pretentious. At times, the dialogue even comes perilously close to the level of a Hallmark card or a fortune cookie, but McLaughlin searches for our attention and rescues it just in the nick of time. As tightly directed by Emily Ranii, with effectively coordinated Lighting Design by Dan Alaimo and Sound Design by Edward Young, as well as simple Scenic and Properties Design by Courtney Nelson and well conceived Costume Design by Chelsea Kerl and Projection Design by Matthew Haber, it emerges as a very cohesive production.

As the first in what is hoped to be a significant series of new works for the theater, “Tongue of a Bird” is the sort of play audiences may flock to. After all, as the program notes also attest, we are all daughters and sons. If this production is sometimes too earthbound in the writing, in the performances of this stellar cast, it soars.

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