Jul 7, 1999 at 4:00 am
For an actress best known for her role as a peripatetic winged messenger, Ellen McLaughlin is not the least bit flighty. The originator of the role of the Angel in Tony Kushner's epic Angels in America sits down to talk about her own play, Tongue of a Bird, with a calm demeanor. She is serious, thoughtful, discussing her play. Yet there is an ethereal quality to her today in an electric-blue shirt and dangling feather earrings, her hair frosted blond, her eyes startlingly clear. She projects a character with a high degree of nerve. After all, it takes a person fundamentally grounded to soar, as she has, in a perilously turbulent art form.

Tongue of a Bird, however, belies the truth of surface presentation. The serious, distanced personality is treated as a pose in McLaughlin's play, a facade created to protect a frightened person in hiding. It took years for Bird to reach completion — revisions are still being made to the upcoming production by The New Theatre. McLaughlin has described an adversarial relationship with the making of this play, and she now acknowledges that the primary adversary was herself: "It took me to places I didn't want to go to in my own psyche. The play forced me over the many years I spent working on it — and not working on it — to confront aspects of myself that had been very comfortable to avoid."

Bird is the story of Maxine, a search-and-rescue pilot renowned for her uncanny farsightedness. She's located everyone she's searched for — dead and alive. However, McLaughlin says, "There's this thing in plays about, why is this day different from any other day? There's something about this search that hits her at this point in her life in a way that no search for anybody she's ever looked for has hit her."

A girl has been kidnapped and taken into the mountains. Days pass without a trace of her or her abductor. Snow begins to fall. Searching daily, Maxine fears for this one girl who may never be found. In the evenings she goes home to her grandmother, Zofia, who seems to be on some strange flight of her own. Maxine begins to receive visitations — from Charlotte, the missing girl; from Evie, Maxine's mother, who violently took flight from the world when Maxine was a child. Whether these encounters are dream, imagined, supernatural — McLaughlin leaves that to her performers and her audience.

Like her protagonist, McLaughlin loves the sensation of flight, and she has pursued the idea literally and metaphorically in Bird. "I love flying, and to a certain extent what appeals to me about flying has to do with psychological tendencies of mine that are here on the ground, to go up and out and away and get a big distance from the actual. I wanted to write about flying, and then I realized there's a sinister underpinning to that addiction that's dangerous psychologically. As soon as I started writing about the addiction to flight, I found that I was writing about insanity and madness, an ability to detach the self from the self — which is certainly very useful for a person in trauma and in difficult situations. But once you get good at it — and children who go through tough childhoods get very good at it — it's very hard to reel yourself back into the body. It's comfy out there, and nobody can really hurt you. Nothing can really get to you, and that's why you went out to begin with.

"But there's a point when you really do have to come back into the body. This is a play about a woman landing a plane, and everything that metaphor implies. It's about a woman crashing back into her own lived, authentic life."

To turn these ideas into theatrical realities, McLaughlin has presented the producers of her play some daunting stage challenges. Characters appear, literally, out of thin air — and disappear. McGlaughlin studied with one of America's most inventive playwrights, John Guare, who taught her that "a playwright has to write as if anything can be done, because you have to have the courage to feel that freedom as a writer. If you want a huge chicken-salad sandwich that flies across the stage, you write that in, and it's not your problem."

McLaughlin credits her Angels experience, and her close association with Tony Kushner, for the temerity to demand the impossible. "Tongue of a Bird is affected by Angels in the sense that I did put impossible things into it. I wasn't trying to write a play that was easily producible, because I thought, "What the heck, I will dream big,' because I was in this amazing dream of a play that asked impossible things. Tony asked impossible things in Angels in America, and it's been produced all over the world. If you need to produce that play, you will figure out a way to do it."

The experience of Angels has also transformed McLaughlin's belief in how theater can transform an audience. She offers an anecdote from the run of Angels, from a postperformance discussion between actors and audience: "We had a group of Mormons from Utah. This was a high-school group. They were all these white kids asking questions. They loved the play.

"There was this girl — Stephen Spinella (who played the central protagonist, a homosexual with AIDS) was sitting next to me — she said, "Everything I have ever been taught has taught me to hate you for being who you are. And I love you.' And she burst into tears.

"If that's the only thing that we did ... it's changed me, because I've always been so suspicious of the American theater audience. I viewed them as hostile. I assumed they wouldn't like anything that I did. I couldn't comfort myself with that anymore. It is a comfort when you think it's just going to go over their heads, (that) they're not going to like it. I realized people will go where you take them, if you take them in the right way. They'll go anywhere."

The New Theatre presents Tongue of a Bird at the St. Louis University Theatre, 3633 W. Pine Mall, with a preview at 8 p.m. Thursday, July 8, and the opening at 8 p.m. Friday, July 9. The play runs through July 25, with performances at 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Call 531-8330 for tickets.