The House Theatre remounts its 2016 hit and darling of the Jeff Awards, Vanessa Stalling’s theatrical adaptation of Evanston-based writer Laurence Gonzales’s 2014 nonfiction book about a 1989 commercial airliner crash in Iowa. The circumstances were one-in-a-million and the crash was horrific, but remarkably, 184 out of the United flight’s 296 passengers survived, including the entire flight crew.
Gonzales based his account on interviews with many of those survivors, as well as ground crew, rescuers and investigators; Stalling turns the material into a kind of oral history of the flight itself, with nine actors embodying about two dozen of the passengers and crew. Gonzales’s book dives deep into the postmortem forensics and technological detective work that determined exactly what went wrong with Flight 232, but as adapter and director, Stalling is mostly interested in the behavioral effects of being on a plane that you know is going down; her play spends more of its time on the plane before it hits the ground than it does on the rescue effort and aftermath.
Stylistically, it’s a thrillingly theatrical re-creation (or, perhaps, a stomach-churning one, if you’re the type who will dwell on this material the next time you’re getting on a plane yourself). The audience is placed on two sides, cocooned within a white cyclorama that serves as a canvas for Paul Deziel’s projections. The actors—four returning from the original cast, five new recruits—trade off narratives and characters in the alley in between, in a shining example of ensemble work. It’s a compelling, haunting chronicle for those of us who’ve wondered how we’d react in such a situation; the only dramaturgical quibble is a lack of tension, since it’s pretty well baked into the construction that everyone we hear from lived to tell their tale.
The House Theatre of Chicago at Chopin Theatre. Adapted and directed by Vanessa Stalling. With Brenda Barrie, Jessica Dean Turner, Alice de Cunha, Elana Elyce, Abu Ansari, Joseph Sultani, Johnny Arena, Carlos Olmedo, Dan Lin. Running time: 1hr 20mins; no intermission.