WATERTOWN — A recurring image from her dreams became the kernel for Ellen McLaughlin’s most autobiographical play.
“I started having these dreams about a child lost in the snow,” she says, explaining that a family story tells of a distant relative in New Hampshire who became fatally lost in a blizzard while trying to make it from the family’s barn to the house. “I’ve always been haunted by that image.”
It became the prompt for McLaughlin’s 1997 play “Tongue of a Bird,” about a search-and-rescue pilot on the hunt for a girl who’s gone missing on a midwinter hike in the Adirondack Mountains.
The play’s five characters are all women who are, in a sense, looking for one another — or else fleeing. The pilot Maxine spends her days searching for 12-year-old Charlotte, while staying at the home of her emotionally estranged grandmother. The visit prompts Maxine’s internal search for memories of her mentally ill mother, who committed suicide when Maxine was a young child. She’s also visited by ghostly incarnations of her long-gone mother and the lost child she’s been hired to search for. Both apparitions seem to be projections of her unsettled feelings about her own identity.
“Tongue of a Bird” is dense with metaphor and symbolically potent references, right down to a trapped bird. Its plot points amount to a grim-sounding story line. But it essentially makes an upbeat statement about resilience, according to Emily Ranii, who directs a New Repertory Theatre production that begins performances on Saturday.
“I’m struck by just how much hope is in the play. These women have insatiable hope,” Ranii says, “and that’s something that we really have been working to tap. It’s a quest for a child, which certainly is a metaphor for a quest for life.” This is Ranii’s second experience with the play, after helming a student workshop at Boston University in 2012.
McLaughlin is a playwright and actress whose most prominent credit is her role as the angel in Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning epic “Angels in America,” with which she was involved throughout its early development. Her time onstage in that play overlapped the eight or so years she says she wrestled with “Tongue of a Bird” before finally finishing it. “There’s a lot of blood on that play. It was a very, very hard birth. There’s a way in which I didn’t want to come to terms with what the play demanded of me,” McLaughlin says.
The playwright explains that Maxine’s relationship with childhood memories of her mother is a speculative vision of what McLaughlin could have ended up experiencing in her own life. “My mother was mentally ill through quite a lot of my childhood. She survived, happily, and is one of my great heroes. But it looked bad for a long time there, and during my childhood it was a very terrible time for her,” she says. “I realized at some point that I had to come face to face with what might have happened to me if she hadn’t survived that illness, and the kind of person that I might have become.”
“Tongue of a Bird” is the first offering in New Repertory Theatre’s inaugural Next Rep Black Box Festival, a series of intimately staged plays. The series concludes with the June world premiere of Walt McGough’s “Pattern of Life,” a two-hander about the tragedy-prompted interrelations between a military drone pilot and Pakistani villager.
The festival is a bit of a grab-bag — it includes a reprise of “Imagining Madoff,” a popular selection from earlier in the year, and a rebranding of the company’s existing staged-reading series — but artistic director Jim Petosa says a common theme is the importance of the relationship between parent and child. “The plays feature different characters who are dealing with issues of identity,” Petosa says, “through their exploration of their connection to their family and their parents.”
Actress Bobbie Steinbach, who portrays Maxine’s grandmother Zofia in “Tongue of a Bird,” says the play’s focus on maternal relationships offers a natural way for the creative team to bond while working on emotionally difficult material. (McLaughlin says that years ago, two different actresses cast in the role of Maxine’s deceased mother withdrew from the play’s earliest incarnations, saying the role was just too intense.)
“You can say there’s a lot of estrogen in the room,” Steinbach says, citing the five actors, director, stage manager, and assistant stage manager. “I like working with men and being around men, I’ve been married for almost 50 years, but there’s something when you’re with women that oftentimes makes it a very safe place.”
Still, the quest for self-identity as understood through family history is something that theatregoers of any gender may be apt to recognize.
“The quest to find oneself is so very primal and visceral,” director Ranii says, “so I think there is a lot of opportunity in that for us all to relate to.”