The hills of Scotland stand in for ancient Greece in Deborah Brevoort’s earnest but stilted play about the emotional aftereffects of the downing of a Pan Am jet by terrorists in 1988. The play is obviously modeled on Greek tragedy — it observes the standard unities and features a chorus — but its content never rises above the level of a TV movie, despite studious efforts to heighten the rhetorical tone in keeping with the classical structure.
Judith Ivey plays the teary protagonist, the mother of one of the victims. Madeline has, we are told, spent the seven years since the tragedy weeping on the couch.
Her husband, Bill (Larry Pine), has brought her to the site of the crash in hopes that she’ll find closure at last. While Madeline wanders the hills (effectively abstracted in Derek McLane’s striking set design), rather irrationally looking for a physical trace of her son’s remains, Bill engages with a chorus of local women led by Olive Allison (Jenny Sterlin).
They are seeking to stop a plan to incinerate the clothing of the victims; they want to wash it and return it to the next of kin. The play’s most crudely drawn character is an American diplomat so crass he professes admiration for George Steinbrenner. He’s all set to carry out official orders to burn the clothes before undergoing an unconvincing last-minute conversion.
The dialogue, which appears in the printed text as blank verse, moves up and down the rhetorical scale. Olive, consoling Bill, is partial to the oracular style: “You can’t reason with grief. It has no ears to hear you. Let her walk the hills and tread her grief into the ground.” Madeline doesn’t have that kind of distance: “Why did I choose Pan Am over Delta?” she wails.
Ivey spends much of the play in convincing hysterics, while Pine, with his marvelous sorrowing eyes, looks on in pained frustration. But neither sincere and skillful performances nor artful arrangement on the page can disguise the blunt obviousness of the dialogue. “We came here to find peace!” Bill exhorts his wife. “I want justice!” she shoots back. “I won’t find peace until there is justice!” “That’s not justice. That’s revenge.” Discussions of the cruelties of fate also grow tedious when they are framed in such generic terms.
The choral interludes dwell ponderously on similarly well-trodden ground, albeit at a higher literary altitude: “If the night was full of light, we would not see the stars. And if hatred never pierced our hearts, we would not know the power of love.”
The production apparently had a last-minute change of directors. Wilson Milam, touted on a March 24 press release, was replaced by New Group helmer Scott Elliott. But the style of the play is a far cry from the pungent naturalism Elliott tends to specialize in, and the result is understandably uncertain.
But it’s hard to see how any director could reconcile the discordance between Brevoort’s ambitious literary style and the banality of her ideas.