No one can accuse Ellen McLaughlin’s “Tongue of a Bird,” directed by Lisa Peterson, of being a stereotypical “female play.” With no love interest, heartwarming domesticity or girl-group bonding, the play instead is a harsh, sometimes macabre work addressing themes of abandonment, denial and the nature of evil.
The show’s stark, wintry feel is underscored by Rachel Hauk’s sets. A raked wooden floor, high, tilted beams and free-floating windows create a sense of arid space. Rooms and other settings are merely suggested by set pieces that rise onto the stage through trap doors. In this desolate environment, five characters circle one another warily, talking but revealing little.
Maxine (Jennifer Van Dyck), a pilot, has been hired by a distraught mother (Sheila Tousey) to search for her daughter, who was abducted while hiking in the mountains. In the air and on the ground, Maxine is visited by chilling visions of the lost girl (Alison Bacich) and — more disturbingly — her own, long-dead mother (Gina Nagy). Between flights, Maxine camps out at the home of her maternal grandmother (Judith Roberts), who wrestles with her own ghosts.
Still in its formative stages, the play is overly schematic, with some of the metaphors so obvious they hold little power (flight equals fleeing from problems). Yet several key scenes make their intended emotional impact.
The actors — particularly Van Dyck and Nagy — muster all the concentration and control necessary, and McLaughlin’s poetic descriptions of the soul’s landscape are by turns beautiful and harrowing. In the penultimate scene, the spirit of Maxine’s mother calmly describes the final stages of the insanity that led her to suicide — how she glimpsed the perfect, sleeping face of her daughter just beyond the noise and chaos in her mind. Through the power of McLaughlin’s writing we see how the pain and terror of madness can obliterate even the love of one’s own child.
This scene, like much of the play, will leave few hearts untouched.