There are lots of reasons to take in Tongue of a Bird, the first entry from Carlsbad's Stone Soup Theatre Company since the completion of the Panama Canal. For one, the show marks a major performance presence at downtown San Diego's new Tenth Avenue Theatre. Tongue of a Bird is the first play to be staged at the former church, also occupied by Eveoke Dance Theatre. And it heralds an alleviation, however slight, of the near-terminal squeeze on San Diego's live spaces, especially in the city center. In both instances, everybody wins.
Besides, the 107-seat theater is exactly right for this play. The bulky stage area frames Nick Fouch's rustic set with lots of empty space, a key element in depicting the lonely aerial search for a kidnapped 12-year-old girl over present-day New York's Adirondack mountains. Maxine (Julie Sachs), the beleaguered rescue pilot charged with the kid's safe return, will fly over her childhood home and encounter memories of Evie (an absolutely outstanding Robin Christ), the mother she lost as a girl to mental illness and suicide. Predictably, Maxine's been plucking people out of harm's way in her weather-beaten Cessna to compensate for her mom's absence. And her search for little Charlotte (Abbey Howe) will end, ironically enough, in the redemption she's sought through the wrong means.
It's no surprise that young Esther Emery is already among this city's best directors. She has all the conceptual gifts of the departed Kirsten Brandt, yet she finds the resources to channel them into uniform themes-a talent Brandt sometimes failed to tap. With Tongue, Emery's intent is absolutely kick-ass unmistakable. The strident speeches, the longing stares, the copious distances between the players, the muddy pallor that obscures Evie's secrets: We wonder if we've dropped in on an Allen Ginsberg poetry reading or a Jack Kerouac festival-such is the overwhelmingly appropriate “beat” mood Emery has captured.
Playwright Ellen McLaughlin's language is hearty and coarse amid Evie's take on her shock therapy and its parallel with the screeds of wild birds. “Look at their tongues,” she spits-“black, flattened, moving splinters. And the sounds they make with tongues like that. Horrible.” There's lots more imagery where that came from, such as when Maxine laments her brain as a “bomb you set ticking before you walked off the face of the world.”
Unfortunately, McLaughlin doesn't know when to quit. In the end, she sabotages her writing as she waxes sanctimonious, her bromides trivializing the life-and-death matter at hand. Maxine's cranky, old-school grandma Zofia (an excellent June Gottleib in an almost comically blathery role) exhorts Maxine to “learn to lose what should not be found”-and then promptly fails to expound in layman's terms. And Charlotte's mother Dessa (Wendy Waddell) is a bus driver by trade, for God's sake. It hardly seems fitting that everything she says, right down to her ruminations on Charlotte's overdue library books, sounds like the Gettysburg Address. Besides, Waddell's a serious babe, way too pretty and well-scrubbed for the role (the only major stumble on Emery's part).
But, man, for Robin Christ, whose formal dance training is key to her triumphal work as the troubled Evie. Watch as she lithely poses and preens, alternately tugging at the bars of her “cell,” scrunching her back in a chair and scissoring her legs to create Evie's astral presence. She's thought of everything-and in one of the best performances of the last couple seasons around here, she commands every square inch of her background scenes without a word. Marvelous.
You'll see in the “On Stage” listings on this page that I give this show a coveted little star thing. That means it's recommended. But it should really have a coveted little half-star thing, which this computer can't make (and that's to say I don't have the patience to make it myself, at least not at the moment). The entry certainly has its qualities-the tech work is invaluably fine, and Emery has imbued it with a uniformity of texture that befits her wonderful talent. The glaring problem is that McLaughlin doesn't give her a lot of help.
This review is based on the opening-night performance of March 31. Tongue of a Bird runs through April 23 at the Tenth Avenue Theatre, 930 10th Ave., Downtown. $15-$20. 760-434-1707.