WATERTOWN — Playwright Ellen McLaughlin’s flock of self-conscious metaphors weighs down “Tongue of a Bird” so much the production at the Next Rep Black Box Festival is barely able to get off the ground.
McLaughlin uses the character of a search-and-rescue pilot named Maxine (Elizabeth Anne Rimar) to explore the intense connection between mothers and daughters and the power of love and loss. The story revolves around Maxine’s return to her childhood home in the Adirondacks, where she’s been hired to search for a 12-year-old girl missing in the snowy mountains for over a week. Her chosen profession, in which she has a 100 percent success rate, stands in stark contrast to her ability to find and resolve her feelings about her mother, who committed suicide when she was young.
The five members of this cast, who represent four generations of mothers and daughters, each deliver distinct characters, with Ilyse Robbins and Bobbie Steinbach creating the most compelling portrayals. Robbins is Dessa, the mother of the missing girl and nearly unhinged by worry. Although she is aware of the inevitable outcome of the search, Robbins allows us to see her almost physically pushing the thought away. Robbins also makes Dessa quirky and feisty, and we sympathize with her imperfections even as she reveals how hard she worked to be a good mother and provide a safe home for her daughter.
In contrast to Dessa’s nervous energy, Steinbach plays Zofia, Maxine’s grandmother, with a ballerina’s grace. Even though she’s mostly seated, with a flick of her hands and a tilt of her head Steinbach creates the impression of a trapped bird desperate for release, and a woman so racked by grief she tries to toss away everything, and everyone, she loved.
Courtney Nelson’s backdrop design, an abstract collection of different textures in various shades of white, evocatively suggests both the frozen landscape of the aerial search and the brittle world of Maxine’s mind. But the backdrop sits at one end of the playing area, which makes it feel removed from the action. So much of the action takes place in Maxine’s dreams, including appearances by her dead mother (Olivia D’Ambrosio) and the missing girl (Claudia Q. Nolan), that it’s important the audience feel haunted, too, or at least ensnared by Maxine’s tangle of emotions.
But director Emily Ranii moves her actors back and forth across the stage in a horizontal line that never varies, flattening out a drama that desperately needs a sense of depth and dimension. Despite the intimacy of the Black Box, the staging creates a distance between the characters and the audience that makes it difficult to connect with Maxine’s very personal struggle. To be fair, McLaughlin’s poetic flights are so overstated that the audience often feels lectured at rather than invited in, and her symbolism is so heavy-handed it is groan-inducing (the pilot envisions her mother as the lost aviatrix Amelia Earhart, get it?).
Ultimately, “Tongue of a Bird” dissolves into a collection of high-flying images that never land on any emotion long enough to make us care.