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A CurtainUp Review
Tongue of a Bird
. 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 (Sharon Lawrence) the ghostly mother of Maxine (Cherry Jones), who has searched for her throughout her adult life by finding others as a rescue pilot. The wild bird image is evoked by Evie' memory of her shock treatments in a mental institution -- "Quite the little unhinged sorority."

These bird images not only haunt Evie but Ellen McLaughlin's entire play -- with Evie herself imagined by her aviatrix daughter as a variation of the famously lost Amelia Earheart, flying around the stage, but without Peter Pan's joy. Unfortunately much of this imagery never gains altitude in terms of becoming the play of soaring lyricism and significance to which it aspires.

That's not to say it lacks all claim to our attention. How could it, with Cherry Jones, one of the treasures of the American theater playing Maxine the search-and-rescue pilot hired to find a kidnaped 12-year-old girl lost in the snow-covered Adirondacks. Her voice and delivery is unique . Her apple-pie ordinary features can reflect an extraordinary range of emotions. She uses her body in a way that makes her look tall and strong one minute, fragile and feminine the next. As Maxine she spreads all her jewels before us, as totally at ease and unpretentious as the script she's been given is not.

In jeans and a flight jacket, she is confident and proud of her search record. Without a trace of a transitional stitch showing, she lets us see the inner confusions of another little girl haunted by a mother who flew out of her reach when she killed herself. When she temporarily moves back into her grandmother's house, her belongings fit into a laundry bag, but the baggage containing her emotional scars is heavy enough to overload her little Cessna plane.

But neither Cherry Jones or her able supporting cast can keep Tongue of a Bird from getting bogged down in language and symbolism that is too often pretentious and muddled. Much about Ellen McLaughlin's exploration of mother and daughter relationships and the multiple meanings of the word "flight" is eerily haunting and touching, but too much of it has you itching for a blue pencil to edit out the wordiness.

It all begins straightforwardly enough, with a long monologue by Maxine describing her special gift for spotting the unseen, hinting at something not yielding to her "gift". We also meet Dessa (portrayed with the right mix of rage and despair by Melissa Leo), the mother of the missing girl, and Zofia (a thick Polish accented Elizabeth Wilson) the grandmother who has raised her but now claims not to have room for her in her empty and neglected house. Stay there Maxine does, however, and so the demons and need for flight that haunt both the old and the young woman are gradually brought to light.

To round out the all-female cast, two ghost figures make several appearances. One is the lost girl Pauline (impressively portrayed by young Julia McIlvane last seen with Cherry Jones in Pride's Crossing). The other is high-wire ghost aviatrix Evie (Sharon Lawrence) to remind us of Angels in America a play which did deliver on all it promised significance and in which the playwright herself was suspended on wires. Evie is too solid a character, especially when she talks, to make these ghostly appearances very convincing though Sharon Lawrence is a good enough actress to almost offset this.

Director Lisa Peterson has done her best to integrate the play's real and fanciful elements. The same can be said for Rachel Hauck's set with its opening and closing panels and Mary Louise Geiger's moody lighting.

Tongue of a Bird is the kind of play that may well thrill some and seed long feminist discussions. For many the two hours from takeoff to landing will seem like an overly long and bumpy flight through basically familiar territory.

By Ellen McLaughlin
Directed by Lisa Peterson
With Cherry Jones, Sharon Lawrence, Melissa Leo, Julia McIlvaine, Elizabeth Wilson
Set design: Rachel Hauck
Costume design: Candice Cain
Lighting design: Mary Louise Geiger
Sound design: Applied Audio Technologies
Orginal music by Gina Leishman
Public Theatre/Martinson Hall, 425 Lafayette St., (212/ 239-6200)
Running time:2 hours, one inermission
3/16/99-4/18/99; opened 4/04/99
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 4/02 performance
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©Copyright April 1999, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.
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