Maxine (Deborah Findlay) looks toward the sky in conversation with her long-dead mother; Dessa (Melanie Hill) scans the Earth in an effort to find her kidnapped 12-year-old daughter. Watching over both is another, crueler “mother” — the “damaged world,” as Maxine’s spectral (and airborne) mother, Evie (Deirdre Harrison), puts it — whose unforgiving ways mock any attempts to heal and absolve. Make no mistake: For all that’s fantastical about Ellen McLaughlin’s “Tongue of a Bird,” a fondness for apparitions included, the play itself is borne aloft on wings of grief and pain.
The play, which had its world premiere earlier this fall in a separate production at Seattle’s Intiman Theater, is the kind of non-naturalistic, language-driven American piece to which the British respond. Directly influenced by “Angels in America,” in which McLaughlin originated the role of the Angel, the play here receives the same febrile, intimate staging (from Peter Gill) that Declan Donnellan at the National gave “Angels.”
If Gill could only simplify the prop-heavy proceedings — four stagehands are evident throughout — the director would achieve the same physical expanse that he elicits emotionally from his fine, all-female cast. William Dudley’s cyclorama backdrop, evocatively lit by Hartley T.A. Kemp, best catches the tricky tone of the play: airy yet brooding, specific around the edges and mysterious at its core.
That quality allows McLaughlin to skimp on details of her characters’ lives in favor of the very immediate truths of the generational conflicts on view. Maxine’s need to discover the story behind her mother’s suicide possesses a single-mindedness out of Greek tragedy, and Findlay brings an unsentimental, questing fury to the part. Maxine is no less obsessed with finding Dessa’s missing daughter, since she doesn’t want to ruin her flawless record as a search-and-rescue pilot.
Daughter Charlotte (Catherine Holman) appears at surreal interludes, sometimes bloodied, sometimes not, to take the play to yet one more generation, as does Maxine’s Polish grandmother, Zofia (Miriam Karlin).
Some may balk at a ripeness to the writing that can turn to Oprah-speak (“I wish I didn’t love you,” Maxine tells Evie, “because then I wouldn’t need you anymore”) and an over-reliance on metaphor. But the ending, in which Maxine releases her mother to the same “aching vastness” that she herself has always felt, shows McLaughlin writes catharsis as well as she writes loss.