January 28, 2011, by Joe Nickell, Missoulian
Late in Larke Schuldberg’s play, “Sound of Planes,” 24-year-old Margaret stands on a plain, gray platform and intones a monologue that begins in passive voice. “Now I am breathing in. Now I am breathing out. Now I am breathing in. I see the men. Men in uniform. Men coming up the steps. I take a breath.”
The men come silently in the door.
“Guten tag,” she says, her greeting echoed in ragged unison by her 20-year-old and 16-year-old self, both of whom stand nearby.
It’s a scene that breaks that most basic maxim of conventional theatrical wisdom: Show, don’t tell. With its mash-up of German and English phrases and its mix-up of three different personifications of the same person, it’s also a scene that could only happen in the unreal space of the theatre.
Yet, as the glint of tears on the cheeks of more than one audience member attested, it was a scene that nonetheless punched hard to the gut in Wednesday’s performance of the play’s world-premiere production at the Crystal Theatre.
Convoluted and circumlocutory, at times detached and difficult, “Sound of Planes” demands much of its audience, who in this production sit facing one another across the three-platform stage. “Non-linear” hardly begins to address the play’s looping, echoing, cubist coil of 23 scenes. Some parts unfold naturalistically; others through pure narration; others as letters or Skype conversations between Margaret and her beloved soldier, Jonathan.
In the play’s funniest scene, words are replaced by stated emotions and actions: “Laughing, laughing. Joke,” says a nameless girl at a party. “Joke. Mean joke,” replies a nameless boy. “Angry!” shouts the girl.
It all centers around Margaret, a young American woman whose parents died on Sept. 11, 2001 – but in a car accident, not in the terrorist attacks of that date. Sent to Berlin to live with Anna, her icy artist aunt, 16-year-old Margaret soon falls for Jan, her long-haired German tutor.
But just as their love starts to blossom, Margaret abruptly leaves Germany and Jan for her home in Seattle. There, she meets Jonathan, an Army captain, whom she marries just as he is shipping off to serve in the Surge in Iraq.
It’s a relatively simple plot. But with three actresses – none of whom look remotely similar – playing the role of Margaret at three stages in her life and occasionally trading places for repeated scenes, it’s a challenge simply to keep up with what’s happening when, and where.
In Montana Actors’ Theatre’s production at the Crystal, one occasionally longs for more to bring the dizzying refractions into clear focus, particularly early on. It takes some time to simply sort out which is the eldest Margaret (Tylyn Carmean, as Margaret at 20, arguably appears older than Samantha Pollington, who plays Margaret at 24); and for a while, cappuccino cups serve as the only signifier of the third scene’s setting in Seattle.
Though Rebecca Sporman’s minimalist set is divided into three parts, the spaces aren’t employed to correspond with the three stages in Margaret’s life. Only the beautifully evocative, shattered automobile-mobile that hangs over one platform, and the angrily abstract paintings over another, draw the scenery into the story.
Moreover, the production, directed by Kaet Morris, seems to take the whole thing a tad too somberly, casting most of the action in grayish gravity. Scenes such as the aforementioned party and Margaret’s adorably awkward first meeting with Jonathan long for greater levity to balance the introspective melancholy of Margaret’s struggles with loss.
Still, with dedicated and convincing performances from the production’s cast (which also includes Melana K. Harter as the youngest Margaret, Tim Larson as Jonathan, Colton Swibold as Jan, and Ann Peacock as Anna), it’s easy to get entangled in Schuldberg’s carefully knotted study of regret, loss and ultimate grace.