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Theater Review: The Women of Lockerbie

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In The Women of Lockerbie, through May 12 at the Actors’ Gang in Culver City, art and accuracy have settled their differences to bring an extraordinary story to the stage.  Deborah Brevoort’s one-act, real-time drama imagines that important night seven years after the 1988 downing of PanAm Flight 103 when a simple act of decency took on epic proportions. With nods to Greek Tragedy, Shakespearean rants on Scottish heaths and American dramas about the power of the common people, Brevoort has created a powerful reminder that air disaster victims include more than the people who fall from the sky. There are also the people who miss them.  And, the people who find them.

In December 1988, the terrorist bombing aboard a New York-bound PanAm flight out of London turned a Boeing 747 into a meteor shower over Lockerbie, Scotland. Everyone onboard and 11 more on the ground were killed.  Most of the 270 victims were American and the majority of those were residents of New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. The tragedy faded first from the headlines, then from memory. Even the airline went out of business and disappeared.

In 1999, interest was renewed when two indictments were handed down against Libyan men charged with the bombing.  The interest continued through the subsequent trial that ended with the sentencing of one defendant in 2002.  During that time, Brevoort’s play, which she had spent five years writing, was introduced with the support of a 2001 Fund for New American Plays grant.

The Women of Lockerbie now gives that historical event a timeless source of revival. It is being produced around the country, but indications are that this is the Southern California premiere. Director Brent Hinkley (whose acting is currently on display in SCR’s My Wandering Boy) infuses the Actor’s Gang staging with a visceral quality.

The play is set in the open space that was the debris field from the wreckage. In the middle of a December night, the sky and earth merge in the inky darkness.  Flashlight beams and distant voices break the stillness at rise. A man calls out for his wife.  She calls back.  But it is her son Adam, a passenger on Flight 103 returning from study abroad, whose name she cries. A dozen passengers seated closest to the explosion disappeared without a trace. Adam was one of these. Without a physical symbol — even a bone fragment or jacket button — for closure, Madeline’s extraordinary grief has continued unabated.

Though the entire cast serves Hinkley well, the center of the production is Kate A. Mulligan, who plays Adam’s mother Madeline. Her wails and contortions are of Greek proportion, a Munch scream come to life. Mulligan makes a brave choice in pulling out the stops for this characterization and it will unnerve some. However, she somehow shapes the hysteria and keeps a real person in sight.

Sibyl Wickersheimer’s entire set is a steeply raked hillside of pitch-black plywood. Bosco Flanagan’s spare lighting and John Zalewski’s beautifully eerie sound design help turn this play set in Scotland into a modern Scottish Play.  Madeline's dazed wandering of the site bears more than passing resemblance to Lady Macbeth's sleepwalking.  The arrival of three women (Mary Eileen O’Donnell, Terri Lynn Harris, Anna Sommer), who occasionally move in coven choreography, underscores the sense that these kindly community women have one foot in a mystical otherworld.  The women, some with immediate family killed by the falling jet, are no strangers to grief.  Patti Tippo plays a fourth Lockerbie local.

Brevoort has brought Madeline and Bill Livingston (Silas Weir Mitchell) back to Lockerbie on the anniversary of the crash.  This action by the fictional Livingstons coincides with an historical event.  Hundreds of local women, incensed that the U.S. government still had not released the personal belongings of the dead — including the bloody clothes they had on — have chosen this seventh anniversary to raise their voices in protest.

As backdrop to Madeline's hopeless quest, the women confront the U.S. official (Robert Shampain) in charge of the warehouse.  In a case of real-life improvisation, the women come up with a gesture that will serve the victims, the survivors and the officials.  Their real-life demand, which certainly serves the drama as well, is that they be allowed to perform a service – a humane act of cleansing, and closure. 

The Actor’s Gang has given Brevoort’s play a fitting entry into Los Angeles.  It’s no surprise that the production has been extended to May 12.

For background on this story, download the Actor’s Gang’s thorough Study Guide here, and an online resource here.

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