The idea that people can be pulled out of their lives and dropped into some nether realm of uncertainty is a terrifying one. When we are not in crisis mode, life, for the most part, has a feeling of certainty. We make plans for tomorrow, we plan for the future, we consider our wants and desires and how to fulfill them. We forget that there is no security, there is no certainty, there is no guarantee of a moment past this one. We count on a tomorrow that we aren’t sure exists. This is the realm occupied by Ellen McLaughlin’s Tongue of a Bird, directed by Linda S. Nelson.
When Dessa’s (Jessica Jennings) twelve year old daughter Charlotte (Jordyn Morgan) goes missing, her world crumbles. The only way she can put the pieces back together is to find her daughter. All she has to go on is that while she was camping in the Appalachian Mountains with her friends, a stranger in a black pick up truck forced her into his vehicle. Eleven days on and with still no sign, Dessa is willing to liquidate everything she owns to pay pilot Maxine (Mary Sheridan) to search from above in her Cessna small aircraft.
In her years’ long search for the missing, lost hikers, or those who step out into nature with the intention of permanently losing themselves, she has edged the periphery of loss. Up high in the air, peering down with objective eyes, Maxine is a conduit between the landscape of the mountains and those who worry for their lost over too many cups of coffee seasoned with tears. She has her own code that she follows. “We can expect someone to come looking for us. We owe each other that, at least,” she tells Dessa. This is a beautiful idea, that we humans owe each other something so profound and simple, to be found when one is lost.
This moment in the play wrenched my heart and I thought of how easy it is to lose someone, and to not go searching. Or to be lost, and certain no one misses you, that no one will come looking, that maybe the world is better off. How easy it is to feel the weight of your own uselessness. How easy it is to abandon, and how much easier to be abandoned. We cut ourselves off from others’ pain, even when we don’t mean to. We cut ourselves off from our own pain. Because we don’t want pain to rip us apart. Still, we have an obligation to our fellow humans, to seek them out, to find them, and just as much an obligation to be found. For Maxine, seeking out the disappeared gives her life a meaning she cannot find on her own. Finding the missing is a thing she and her little plane can do, and so she does it. She does the thing that she can do because it is a thing that must be done.
Maxine goes out every day, soaring above the tree line, straining her eyes to see the girl’s sky blue coat. Each night she descends to face Dessa, her desperation, and her increasing despair. Looking into the face of Dessa’s nightmare brings Maxine face to face with her own. Only instead of missing a daughter, she’s missing her mother. Staying with her grandmother Zofia (Jane Culley), who raised her from the time she was a toddler, brings back tortured memories. Maxine can’t escape this reality of permanent insecurity even in sleep, where she is haunted by both her mother Evie (Amy Fulgham), inexplicably dressed like Amelia Earhart, and missing daughter Charlotte.
Maxine has a history of finding the missing, and she’s not willing to give up until she brings them back, living or dead. What she doesn’t expect is that this is the search mission that will bring her own long, lost story into the light of her consciousness. While Dessa’s life sinks further into unbearable territory, Maxine finds her way toward a kind of reconciliation with her memories of her mother. As Dessa is permanently separated from the future she counted on, Maxine is liberated from her past.
The performances offer a raw, emotional power, and the direction is skillful and tender. Playing at Shetler Studios from December 11-16, Tongue of a Bird is an elegant walk into a poetic, if devastating, landscape.