The New Theatre's production of Ellen McLaughlin's play Tongue of a Bird has almost everything successful presentations need. The actors do well by their parts and Lavonne Byers is so powerful it's scary. Scene designer Miles Vesich makes superb use of the big stage at St. Louis University's theater, and Glenn Dunn's lighting is the best he's ever done for TNT perhaps because the refurbished SLU theater gives him more to work with. Milt Zoth's sound design and Marlana Klenke's flight control are first-rate. Costumes are fine, too, except for the silly Polish-grandma wig Lee Patton Chiles must wear.
Tongue of a Bird itself is the problem it's not a good play.
It ought to be, however. The story concerns the search by an aviator (handsome Catherine Richard) for a kidnapped 12-year-old, Charlotte (Devon Cahill), in some unnamed mountain region. The aviator, Maxine, is also searching within herself for her mother, Evie (Jen Loui), a suicide. Her grandmother Zofia (Chiles) is no help at all. Charlotte's mother, Dessa (Byers), urges Maxine on and supplies a bracing lower-class presence to counteract the O, altitudo! attitude of the three other grownups.
That's good material. In fact, explorations of the mother/daughter relationship in general late in coming to the stage, at least compared with father/son set-tos are both interesting and necessary. But McLaughlin erodes our interest from the moment a character speaks it's Maxine, and she gives a longish, lyrical monologue on a childhood memory that just might be part of her suppressed memory of her mother's suicide. Maxine's lyrical monologues continue, alas, throughout the play. Grandma Zofia, mother Evie and other-mother Dessa also have lyrical spasms, but only Byers and, to a lesser extent, Chiles pull them off. Byers is a wonderful actor anytime, anywhere, and maybe Dessa would be as dull a character as Maxine and Evie are if Byers weren't playing her. Chiles, who really should spend a little more time in straight drama (as opposed to her excellent work with Historyonics Theatre Company) because she's so remarkable an actor, has the best part feisty grandmas are always fun, but Chiles gives her real flesh and real bones.
Tongue of a Bird is simply overwritten. McLaughlin needs to rewrite the characters of Maxine and Evie to make them less talky, less "poetic." She must also spend more time presenting her themes than explicating them.