Chicago Theatre Review
Bravery and Blessings in the Sky
United Flight 232 – House Theatre
In 1989, on a beautiful sunny day in July, a United Airlines DC-10 filled with passengers left Denver, Colorado bound for Philadelphia, with a scheduled layover in Chicago. It never made it to its destination. Due to an inadequate safety inspection, a crack in the rear engine went undetected, which caused a fan to break apart cutting the lines of all three hydraulic systems aboard the aircraft. The hydraulic fluid leaked out leaving the flight crew helpless to operate the jet properly. With additional assistance provided by a flight instructor, who just happened to be on board along with the other passengers, the skilled crew guided the crippled aircraft into a cornfield near the airport in Sioux City, Iowa.
Because the flight crew wasn’t able to decrease the aircraft’s speed during the emergency landing, the jet crashed and split into several sections upon touchdown. It flipped upside down and caught fire. However, despite all the trauma, thanks to the quick thinking and expert control by Captain Alfred Haynes and his staff, as well as flight instructor Dennis Fitch, of the 296 passengers on board 184 survived. Despite the loss of 111 lives, the incident was hailed as a triumph of well-trained, brilliantly successful airline crew.
This riveting, heart-pounding, true story of bravery and blessings in the sky understandably became the subject of many television programs and films, as well as being turned into several bestselling novels and true accounts penned by various survivors of the crash. One of these literary chronicles, Flight 232: A Story of Disaster and Survival, by journalist Laurence Gonzales, has been adapted for the stage and directed by Vanessa Stalling. Her script, as well as her production, is the closest any of us will ever want to be to such a disaster. While a TV show, film or book can fascinate, educate and move us, sitting in the intimate confines of the House Theatre essentially places each audience member directly in the middle of the event. It’s impossible to view this impressive production objectively. Ms. Stalling draws every theatergoer helplessly into this horrific event in a touching, beautifully executed production.
The audience enters the auditorium through an authentically fashioned passenger boarding bridge that conveys each patron to his assigned seat, placed in rows on either side of the theatre space. The versatile playing area, designed by John Musial, is like a huge tent. It’s draped by massive sections of white fabric, upon which Paul Deziel’s projections and William C Kirkham’s lighting design is displayed. The cast engages in a stylized, choreographed staging, moving their chairs around, sometimes forming the cockpit, at other times creating the passenger area of the plane. Steve Labedz’s sensitively composed sound design adds another layer to this vicarious experience, while Delia Ridenour’s authentic-looking costumes enable the nine-member ensemble to change from flight attendants to flight crew members to passengers, with ease and agility.
It would be impossible to single out any one of the talented, hardworking actors in this brilliant production. They’re all equally gifted and bring so much of themselves to this production. The ensemble includes Brenda Barrie, Alicia Da Cunha and Echaka Agba as three empathetic and valiant flight attendants, Rudy Galvan, James Doherty, Johnny Arena, Elana Elyce, Michael E. Martin and Krydell Galima as the devoted and brave flight crew and assorted passengers. Each cast member is magnificent and miraculous in the way he or she lives out this drama, reinterpreting the events through the eyes of each character. This is an award-winning ensemble, if ever there was one.
The nobly creative, impressive and inventive House Theatre, about to embark upon its 15th season, leaves audiences gasping, teary-eyed and rising to their feet following this outstanding production. Because it’s based upon actual events it’s that much more relatable; and because most every audience member will have personally experienced air travel, the play is all that more thought-provoking and frightening. This is a celebration of the valor and dedication of the United flight staff, the strength and heroism of the survivors and a tribute to those poor souls who lost their lives in this disaster. It’s one production that should not be missed.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented March 11-May 1 by the House Theatre of Chicago at Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division, Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 773-769-3832 or by going to www.thehousetheatre.com.
Additional information about this and other fine area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com