Tongue of a Bird

The story of a desparate mother searching for her kidnapped daughters starts awkwardly, then takes flight.


Through July 21

Tickets are $14-20


Phoenix Theater

655 Geary (at Leavenworth), S.F.

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Watching Signal Theater Company's presentation of Ellen McLaughlin's production (directed by Cliff Mayotte) is like watching a bird learning to fly: The first unsteady steps take on surprising purpose as you watch it suddenly take flight. Twelve-year-old Charlotte (Sara Maria Hasbun) has been kidnapped and taken into the snowy woods. Her desperate mother, Dessa (Carolyn Doyle), hires a pilot, Maxine (Éowyn Mader), to find her. Maxine's search for Charlotte becomes a personal journey as she comes to terms with the death of her own mother (Dawn-Elin Fraser) and the story of her grandmother (a marvelous Patricia Silver), who immigrated from Poland to the U.S. Themes of loss, recovery, and the "perpetual presence" of a loved one's absence flit in and out of the play, which is set almost entirely on the wing of a plane with a background of distant, bare trees. This sparse, pale blue and white design (by Greg Dunham), which suggests vast space, takes on poignant meaning in the Phoenix Theater's cramped upstairs: Though Maxine has the freedom of flight, she is emotionally earthbound, unable to escape the haunting image of her mother, who appears, ghostlike, behind a scrim above the stage. Mader settles gracefully and effortlessly into the role of Maxine, easily carrying both the comic and the intense moments. Doyle takes a risk in playing Dessa with calm resignation: It's counter to the text, which suggests she should be more hysterical. It could also make audiences think she lacks energy -- that is, until she reaches a breaking point and unleashes an impassioned monologue. Fortunately, McLaughlin doesn't tell the whole story from the start; instead, she parses out bits of information about the characters until they have enough dimension (and coordination) to really take off.

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