'Falling': Here's why there aren't more plays about air disasters

THEATER REVIEW: "Falling: A Wake" at the Rivendell Theatre ★

Will Crouse and Rivendell ensemble members Mark Ulrich and Jane Baxter Miller in "Falling: A Wake."

Will Crouse and Rivendell ensemble members Mark Ulrich and Jane Baxter Miller in "Falling: A Wake." (March 13, 2012)

At the top of Gary Kirkham's "Falling: A Wake," the startling new show at the Rivendell Theatre, there is an almighty crash and parts of an airplane start falling out of the sky, including one of the passengers.

Although blessedly rare, such events have happened. The setting of Kirkham's 70-minute play is not Lockerbie, Scotland — instead, it's an isolated farm outside an unnamed American town — but the events in Kirkham's drama were nonetheless inspired by the terrorist bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 in 1988.

That's about the only note of veracity in this entire unfortunate enterprise, a truly perplexing choice as the opener for Rivendell's lovely new studio theater — a 50-seat black box with comfy seats and a deep playing space — up on Ridge Avenue. Long may this handsome new theater thrive. And may it do so with better shows.

Here's the set-up to Kirkham's drama, which is directed by Victoria Delorio. A middle-aged couple — rather naive married folks played by Jane Baxter Miller and Mark Ulrich — first discover the bits of a plane on their farmland, and then they hold a lengthy one-way conversation with the passenger from the sky (the silent Will Crouse), who remains unscathed in his seat, with his back to the audience.

I can't overstate how much that bothered me. Granted, we're in a symbolic universe, yada, yada. But then why do we hear the sounds of a hyper-realistic crash, replete with an ear-splitting clatter that make you feel like you were right underneath the plane? Delorio can't have it both ways. We get realistic bits of metal and a gentleman who appears to have floated down from the sky, tray still in the upright position. It's preposterous.

But that's far from the main problem. Here's the main problem: Plane crashes are not even remotely funny. And however well-meaning a writer may be, their victims don't easily function as symbols for stylized plays.

Sure, Kirkham's piece is intended to be poignant, and serious themes do eventually emerge. But that needs a much more sophisticated mode of production that what we get here. For much of the running time, we're expected to embrace a wry, affected style wherein this nerdy, deeply irritating couple run around the stage showing us their quirky characters, even though every fiber of one's being wants to know what the deal is with the fellow who has just been through the crash, tray-table intact, and who is far more interesting than these other characters.

Kirkham and Delorio, it seems, want him to be an initially passive symbol. But try as you may, you can't go there, because you're being asked to ignore a victim of a plane crash. And you just can't. It's a bit like sticking a wounded elephant in a storefront and then asking the audience to listen to an hour-long speech from the house manager, while the elephant keeps his back to the audience.

"Falling: A Wake" (boy, what a title to open a new space) is a rambling and pretentious piece of nonsense. Perhaps you will be better able than me to take its desired metaphoric journey; I'm just looking forward to the next show at the new Rivendell Theatre.

cjones5@tribune.com

Twitter@ChrisJonesTrib

When: Through April 14

Where: 5775 N. Ridge Ave.

Running time: 1 hour, 10 minutes

Tickets: $28.50 at 773-334-7728 or rivendelltheatre.org

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