Snatches of memory, shards of moments which inform consciousness: Ellen McLaughlin’s ethereal TONGUE OF A BIRD is an impressionistic painting transformed into a play. The first of three in New Rep’s “NEXT REP” series, TONGUE OF A BIRD (running through March 30th) mixes poetic images with a search (actually many searches) for a child.
A young woman stands at the base of a gleaming mountain face. She remembers looking down from a high window as a child. She thinks something was lost but she can’t find the memory. She’s drawn to the sky, she tells us. She pilots a Cessna now but when she was a girl she could fly up over her body and look down on herself, a “trick [she] learned early,” one of the many wonders we can create as children which are lost to us as adults.
With TONGUE OF A BIRD, McLaughlin taps into a universal female consciousness. (My male friends who saw the same play at the same time tell me they had trouble relating to the imagery so I shall assume it’s more easily accessed by women.) The young woman’s grandmother tells her flight is in her blood. Her great grandmother and her mother’s mother could fly away like birds to protect themselves (which made me think of the African-American spiritual, “I’ll Fly Away”). Surprisingly, miraculously, McLaughlin is able to stir primal perceptions in the listener.
A narrative slowly emerges from beneath and around the elaborate allusions and by the end of the play you’ve pieced together a story but the journey is what matters in TONGUE OF A BIRD, not the destination. The mythic language, the fierce sensibilities in McLaughlin’s writing make the characters soar.
Director Emily Ranii has an inspired cast to embody all the metaphors in TONGUE: Elizabeth Anne Rimar is the driven adventuress, endlessly searching the skies for a lost child who may or may not be the impetuous little girl Claudia Q. Nolan impersonates. Bobbie Steinbach is the strong, immigrant grandmother whose heart was broken and had to “throw away her daughter piece by piece”… who warns us of an unfeeling world that “forgets [its] children.”
Ilyse Robbins is the desperate mother who hires Rimar’s plane to search the snow for her lost daughter. Olivia D’Ambrosio is another mother who, too, sacrificed in her way, for hers. There is so much to absorb in the play, so much which reverberates, resonates, that I suspect you’d find more layers in a second visit. There’s lovely dialogue about the everyday joys children don’t remember when they grow up that I would like to hear again. (I can’t quite recall it now that a whole day has gone by, such are the cruelties of memory.)