Review: “United Flight 232” (The House Theatre)

Show: United Flight 232

Company: The House Theatre

Venue:  The Chopin Theatre (1543 W Division St)

Almost three decades after departure, The House Theatre gives us a glimpse into “United Flight 232”; it’s more than a factual account, more than a documentary, it’s a moment in the beating heart of a disaster in progress. We’re there to peer through the fuselage that still unravels for the few lucky men and women who walked out their flight’s burning wreckage alive and into a sunny Iowa cornfield one devastating day in the summer of 1989.

We follow head Flight Attendant Jan Murray (Brenda Barrie) Captain Al Hanes (Abu Ansari) and the hundreds of crew members, passengers, and hands on the ground that prevented doomed flight 232 from becoming the encompassing tragedy it surely would have been if luck had not intervened. When an explosion rips apart one engine on their passenger craft, the pilots (Abu Ansari, Joseph Sultani, Johnny Arena) think they may be able to manage to O’Hare airport with just their remaining engines. They soon find they are stranded in the air with no ability to bank, turn or pull up. The enormous plane must be coasted to an unpopulated crash landing zone in Sioux City, Iowa.  One pilot likens the experience to “surfing a 500 ton whale”.

When the extent of the damage becomes clear, the crew members (Jessica Dean Turner, Alice Da Cunha) are made aware of the shrinking likelihood that any of them will emerge from the aircraft (as the captain codes it) “standing up”. They have no choice to devote all their energy to staving panic among the passengers (Elana Elyse, Dan Lin, Carlos Alameda) by treating this as normal air trouble, and going about flight routines.

As this plane lumbers through the air to what will be a bloody, ruinous mess of seats, metal and fire, we get a moment with everyone. Unaccompanied minors, businesspeople, mechanics and air traffic controllers all cycle through their regrets and mistakes before they make touchdown. But there is no panic and very little hesitation among a crowd of hundreds solidified enough by their better instincts to blink the terror away and care for each other. There are those who perish, those who flee when they find their feet, and those who glimpse the safety of the corn, just off the tarmac, but go back in to help, because they can. 

Director and adapter Vanessa Stalling filters author Laurence Gonzales’ account of the crash (“Flight 232: A story of Disaster and Survival”) by borrowing some very effective storytelling from documentary features. The actors step into the footsteps of dozens of survivors, asked to retrace their steps and remember the minute details burned into the backs of their eyes over time. The trembling hands collecting scattered miniature vodka bottles. The infant without  a seat being held between her mother’s feet. Stalling has crafted a story far more powerful than a theatrical fictionalization when she allows her subject’s remembered experiences to take focus.

The cast does a great deal of the heavy lifting in this minimalist production. Statements have been gathered from hundreds of survivors, and with he flip of an internal switch, actors must go from retiree to frightened teenager as the tension ratchets up. Elana Elyse is a joy to watch as she volleys between regretful mom Martha Conant and rookie in the control tower, Kevin Bachman. Likewise, Abu Ansari is fantastic both as Captain Al Hanes and as the airport chaplain who meets passengers departing from he wreckage.

As Jan Brown, Brenda Barrie is at the center of everything, one hand in the engine, one hand on your tray tables. It’s no accident that we have her guidance, her clockwork memory as our default authority,  this is the very person you’d want managing your crisis, no matter what. Barrie builds an unbreakable veneer, just to allow us peeks through the cracks. In wonderful counterpoint, Jessica Dean Turner allows us behind the curtain of her fears as coach flight attendant Susan White, who’s sole focus is to see her family once more. And for a beam of weird and wonderful optimism, look no further than Dan Lin as coach passenger John Xiu who managed to rescue a number of passengers with purely accidental good instincts.

So, without delay, I can advise stowing any reservations you may have about crashing planes under your seat, and make plans to move about this cabin. Fair warning: you will need copious tissues where you’re going.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: The human mechanics behind what goes wrong in the air.

DICE RATING: d20- “One of the Best”