Theater » Theater Feature

Fear of Flying

Ellen McLaughlin's Tongue of a Bird takes off at Rhodes.



You know what a wild bird's tongue looks like? Not your nice birds, I'm talking about the ones you shoo off the garden ... the types who steal from nice birds' nests and shriek and dive at the house cats. Look at their tongues -- black, flattened, moving splinters. And the sounds they make with tongues like that. Horrible."

-- Evie from Ellen McLaughlin's Tongue of a Bird

Ellen McLaughlin is a frustrating dramatist whose tremendous gift for language is often wrecked by the writer's keen awareness that she has a tremendous gift for language. Her soaring, image-laden monologues worked reasonably well in her breakthrough play Iphigenia and Other Daughters, because the play was a reasonably straightforward reworking of Aeschylus' Oresteia and because the playwright's overtly (some might say obnoxiously) poetic language echoed the formal, declamatory style of traditional Greek theater. In a more contemporary piece like Tongue of a Bird, the excessive description and overabundance of avian metaphors sound forced and hang heavily about the play's neck. Given the difficult task at hand, director Wes Meador and a cast composed entirely of Rhodes College students have pulled off quite a feat with their intriguing, mysterious, moving, and beautifully realized production of Tongue of a Bird.


McLaughlin claims it was an image of Amelia Earhart -- the doomed pilot who disappeared attempting a solo transworld flight -- that inspired her to pen Tongue of a Bird, a story about Maxine, an emotionally disturbed search-and-rescue pilot who is still trying to come to grips with her mother's suicide. It's more likely, however, that the play was inspired by the playwright's own iconic performance as the flying Angel in Tony Kushner's groundbreaking epic Angels in America. In its original production, the ghostly image of Evie, the Earhart-esque suicide victim, flew about the stage like a less sprightly Peter Pan. Meador has wisely chosen not to fly the character, and removing the gimmick grounds the linguistically challenging play in more ways than one. There are few laughs in Tongue of a Bird, and the emotionally brutal play could certainly use some lighter moments to break the almost unbearable tension.

Maxine, a woman whose worldly possessions -- her Cessna excepted -- fit neatly into a pillowcase, is hired by a flighty single mom whose preteen daughter was kidnapped while hiking in the snowy mountains of Maine. Maxine's search becomes phantasmagorical as she is visited by ghostly visions of the mutilated girl who mocks her would-be rescuer by telling her she's already dead and describing in vivid detail what it feels like to freeze to death: not a bad way to go, if you have to. The troubled pilot is also haunted by visions of her mother, dressed like Amelia Earhart, who talks about her crippling madness and swears that she had to die for her daughter's sake.

With its Beckett-like passages, Greek symmetry, and deeply rural, deeply American imagery, Tongue of a Bird plays out like the decidedly female, ridiculously articulate answer to one of Sam Shepard's sprawling family tragedies. It begins in a state of crisis, explores jagged physical and dangerous psychological landscapes, and ends in conflagration: in this case, with a plane wreck.

Senior theater major Erin McGhee is both rugged and feminine as the troubled pilot, and she relates well to her Polish immigrant grandmother (Amy Gray) and to Dessa (Sophie Gatins), who masks her anger and grief with something bordering on flippancy. Blair Bice is effective as Maxine's ghostly mother, while Emily Popp is positively creepy as the specter of the missing girl who plays with Maxine's emotions like she might play with a ball.

The set by David Jilg is a long, sloping white ramp designed to represent a mountain, with the audience seated on either side. It's a perfect example of how less can be more, and moody lighting and sound design, by Rebecca Wolf and Hank Neuhoff, respectively, are the perfect complement to McLaughlin's script and Jilg's scenic design.

Rhodes gave McLaughlin her Mid-South debut when the McCoy Theatre staged Iphigenia and Other Daughters in 2001. The University of Memphis revived Iphigenia in 2005. While McLaughlin's imagistic style might not be to everyone's taste, this is a perfect example of how college theaters serve the Memphis art community by providing thought-provoking performances of works that aren't likely to find a home in one of Memphis' more commercial venues.

For those who aren't afraid to let their imaginations take flight, Tongue of a Bird is a dark and depressing gem, expertly realized.

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