Tongue Of A Bird, by The New Repertory Theatre

Tongue Of A Bird – Written by Ellen McLaughlin; Directed by Emily Ranii;
Scenic Design by Chelsea Kerl; Produced by The New Repertory Theatre at the
Arsenal Center for the Arts, 321 Arsenal St., Watertown, through March 30.

One of the things I’ve learned in my short stint as a theater reviewer is
that just because what I’m seeing onstage doesn’t make crystal clear sense as
it is happening doesn’t mean that I’ll have to remain in the dark forever.
Unlike a sitcom or an action movie, characters and relationships can be less
well defined and can take time to develop, and I’ve just got to remember to
trust the process. Such was the case with New Rep’s “Tongue of a
Bird” now playing in the Black Box Theatre as part of the New Rep’s
inaugural (3-play) Next Rep Black Box Festival. During the intermission I asked
a patron (and local actress) what she thought of the show so far. “I’m not
sure what’s going on, but the acting is (great),” she said, and I agreed.
Which is not to say what was taking place was not completely compelling. A
terrific cast, some pretty good dialogue and an intriguing plot line (that
sometimes took a back seat to the dynamics of the character’s relationships to
each other) always make for some interesting theater.

The story opens with Maxine, a 30-ish search and rescue pilot who is
returning to her hometown to help find a 12-year old girl who has been
kidnapped and taken up into the Adirondack Mountains by a man in a black
pickup truck. She is hired by the girl’s mother Dessa to fly over the snowbound
region in hopes of finding signs of the truck or her daughter. While there, she
stays in her childhood home with her eccentric/wise Polish refugee grandmother
Zofia, who raised her following her mother’s suicide when she was very young.  But Dessa and Zofia aren’t the only women in
Maxine’s life in this production, thanks to the recurring characters in her
nightmares – Charlotte (the missing girl) and Evie (Maxine’s deceased mother).

Although the setup – a kidnapped girl being searched for in the mountains
in the dead of winter – sounds like a thriller, this is a play about
relationships between women, mostly mothers and daughters. The narrative is
delivered in a series of one-on-one vignettes between Maxine (the excellent
Elizabeth Anne Rimar) and the other (all female) characters, and while the
acting on all fronts is first-rate, the dialogue sometimes veers so far toward
the poetic that we lose the sight of what the characters are trying to

Maxine’s grandmother Zofia (Bobbie Steinbach) is part soothsayer, part
crazy old lady, and while her conversations with her granddaughter sometimes
provide wisdom, they are occasionally excessively long and meandering, which is
no fault of the convincing Steinbach. Claudia Q. Nolan is also nicely bratty as
the 12 year old lost girl, Charlotte, who comes to Maxine in her dreams. And
Ilyse Robbins, as the girl’s horrified and powerless mother, gives a powerful
performance, as her displaced emotions run wildly from fear to sentimentality
to rage. There is an especially touching scene between the Maxine and Dessa as
they soar over the mountains, suspecting the worst but still managing to laugh
about an improbable scenario involving her daughter’s kidnapping being a simple
case of her being “misplaced”.

But given that this is more a play about mothers and daughters than the
literal ‘lost girl’ story, the most powerful scenes are between Maxine and Evie
(the terrific Olivia D’Ambrosio), her deeply troubled mom who took her own life
while her daughter was still in pre-school. I can’t imagine there being a
deeper abandonment scar than a mother’s suicide, and given the rich lode of
psychic horror to mine, the opportunity is not missed by playwright or
performers. D’Ambrosio is masterful in describing in bare-knuckled detail the
brutal electro shock therapy she underwent during her hospitalizations for
mental illness. And she wears the ordeal almost like a badge of honor in her
painful recounting, almost gleefully describing the experience to her daughter.
But Evie later displays her fully human side, and D’Ambrosio and Rimar really
shine in the final scene, one that makes wading through some of the extraneous
dialogue truly worth waiting for.

This play is a really interesting character study powered by a number of solid
performances and is a good take for those not seeking a linear narrative or
easy answers. For more info, go to: