Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Harrowing 'United Flight 232' Depicts Uplifting Side of Humanity in Darkest Moments -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

United Flight 232
a play adapted & directed by Vanessa Stalling
The House Theatre of Chicago
at the Chopin Theater, Chicago
Thru October 21
(remount of 2016 production)

On July 19, 1989, United Airlines Flight 232 departed Denver's Stapleton Airport en route to Chicago and then Philadelphia.

It never arrived at either destination.

Undoubtedly, an airplane crash that killed 111 passengers must be called a horrible tragedy.

But following the "one in a billion" occurrence of the fan disk of the plane's tail-mounted engine disintegrating and puncturing the lines of the aircraft's three hydraulic systems, the flight crew's miraculous efforts prevented a catastrophic rollover and managed to land the plane in Sioux City, Iowa in a way that saved the lives of 185 people on board.

The unusually high number of survivors in a jumbo jet crash that also took many victims makes United Flight 232 one of the most distinct in aviation history.

Although I was living in the Chicago suburbs in the summer of '89 and must have heard about the crash, I cannot say I remembered it--unlike American Airlines Flight 191, which  crashed soon after takeoff at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport on May 25, 1979, killing all 271 on board...and is forever etched in my memory.

Last year, The House Theatre of Chicago debuted a play titled United Flight 232 based on a 2014 book by Laurence Gonzales.

Although I knew the drama earned strong reviews, I did not see it in 2016, in part because I had seen a different play about an airplane catastrophe, Deborah Brevoort's The Women of Lockerbie, in a superb production by AstonRep Theatre Company.

But when House Theatre announced they would remount United Flight 232 this fall, a friend strongly suggested I see it, along with sharing the shocking factoid that his brother had been one of the flight's survivors. (He's quoted early in this New York Times story from the next day.)

Reading a prior review or two prepared me for entering the theater on a replicated jetway within the Chopin Theatre, but unlike what I somewhat imagined, it wasn't as though I was buckling in for a direct recreation of events over 80 minutes.

With nine actors shifting through multiple roles, the events aboard United Flight 232 are told in flashback, with the end results--both extremely tragic and extremely fortunate--revealed rather early on, at least in terms of numbers.

Brenda Barrie is quite prominent--and good--in embodying chief flight attendant, Jan Brown, as is Abu Ansari as Captain Alfred Haynes, who was largely credited for taking quite heroic actions.

But then, almost everyone aboard--which included a large number of children--is shown in a heroic light. As beyond hauntingly evoking an aircraft in distress, the play adapted & directed by Vanessa Stalling primarily aims to highlight the beautiful humanity of people helping and comforting strangers throughout an unbelievable  ordeal.

Fine work is done by the entire cast, and with the putrid smell of smoke pervading the auditorium, it would be hard not to be riveted by tales of fear, prayer, resolve, kindness and piloting prowess, which was abetted by DC-10 flight instructor Dennis Fitch (Carlos Olmedo, I think), a passenger enlisted to help in the cockpit.

By any measure, United Flight 232 is a fine piece of theater, though I wouldn't recommended it to anyone who might be flying within a week.

For anyone else, recollections from the pilots, flight attendants and passengers--some who perished, some who survived--should be both harrowing and uplifting.

Yet while the fast-paced play provides a powerful sense of what was taking place in the sky--including, rather surprisingly, food & beverage service even after the plane suffered damage from which it wouldn't recover--I felt it could have delved a good bit deeper into some of the personalities and why certain passengers happened to be aboard that Wednesday afternoon.

Although The Women of Lockerbie takes place several years after the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 killed 270 people near Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988, and the Come From Away musical--now playing on Broadway; I saw it last year in Washington, DC--chronicles Canadian townsfolk helping flyers stranded there on 9/11, I couldn't help but feel some similarity in United Flight 232, without it being as holistically compelling in a storytelling sense. 

Given the atypical circumstances of so many people surviving a plane crash while 100+ others didn't, Stalling's fine play came up a bit short in addressing my curiosity as to "Why?"

As depicted in this Wikipedia graphic--which isn't shown within the play--the preponderance of survivors were sitting in the plane's middle section. But among many fatalities in first class and past the wings were also a fair number of survivors.

United Flight 232 does mention the plane breaking up in certain parts, huge fire balls and smoke inhalation, but apart from mere luck, it left me unclear as to why there were multiple cases of minor injuries in seats right next to those who lost their lives.

So theatrically, narratively and investigatively, I didn't find the play quite perfect, or as enriching as similar works.

But as a depiction of chaos (though relatively little), heroism and humanity amid abject adversity and tragedy, United Flight 232--onstage and off--is now indelibly etched in memory.

No comments: