Aurora Theatre's Mud Blue Sky Soars
By Lou Fancher
At 35,000 feet, flight attendants are like demigods. Back here on earth? Not so much.
Playwright Marisa Wegrzyn portrays the high-low dynamics of three middle-aged flight attendants on layover in a Chicago O’Hare Airport hotel in Aurora’s season opener, Mud Blue Sky. Demonstrating a flare for interjecting the perfect “spoiler” and steering what could be solely a rollicking farce into an unexpectedly gentle salute to motherhood, sexual desire and kindness among strangers, Wegrzyn tosses into the mix a weed-selling high school kid whose prom date has dumped him.
Aurora Artistic Director Tom Ross leads an accomplished cast with a keen ear. There’s never a misstep in the tempo of arguments that accelerate and crescendo or collapse upon themselves at exactly the right moment — or silences that not only separate thoughts from sentences but stretch into expressions of the characters’ alienation and loneliness. Whether Ross relied on the actors’ instincts or coached them to the skillful execution is hardly important. What matters is that it serves Wegrzyn’s bitterly funny script admirably.
From Beth’s (Jamie Jones) first shoe-shedding moment to the slime-covered television remote control in the opening scene, there’s no doubt that the life of a flight attendant is no longer glamorous. Unlike the nostalgic 1960s TWA ads and photos of smiling young women with perfect teeth projected above the golden-hued hotel room (astutely designed by Kate Boyd), these beaten-down keepers of life-saving strategies (and alcohol) are bent and spent. Even the vivacious Sam (Rebecca Dines) teeters on desperation as she tries to get Beth to go out for a night on the town or juggles phone calls from her teenage son left at home alone for the first time. Their reunion with Angie (Laura Jane Bailey) doesn’t happen until half way through the play, but conversations between Beth and Sam make it clear Angie’s fallen victim to the job’s most obvious and shallow bottom line: “fat and fired,” Beth declares.
When backache—and existential pain that’s never fully defined but resonates clearly—drives Beth to meet Jonathan (Devin O’Brien) to buy the marijuana she’s purchased from him for more a year, the play accelerates. Their relationship is an odd blend of parent/child, counselor/patient; except it’s not always clear whose doing the parenting or advising and frank sexual elements lend an incendiary atmosphere to their encounters.
Sam’s narcissistic approach upon discovering Jonathan hiding out in Beth’s room is more directly predatory, until her attraction to his gawky youthful energy is interrupted by the arrival of an image of a cleaned up kitchen that is sent to her phone by her son. The boys are suddenly too similar; the aborted “fling” is tawdry instead of a terrific way to thrill a kid and fulfill a single mom’s fantasies. Sam withdraws, sending Jonathan into an emotional spiral that sucks in the women and leads to more secrets revealed.
The beauty of Wegrzyn’s withholding and her clever distribution of the layers underneath her character’s lonely lives would be spoiled by describing in detail the rapidly unfolding stories that follow. It’s enough to say that there’s intimacy, regret, compassion, betrayal, violence and hope — a heady mix Wegrzyn handles with aplomb. Perhaps the fact that the playwright’s mother was a flight attendant explains the script’s well-balanced funny, furious and fond tones.
Of course it would all go to waste if the actors weren’t what these actors are: honest, convincing, relaxed. The last term might seem a surprising one, but it’s remarkably the taking off point for Jones’ grounded performance, Dines’ steamy and sensitive portrayal, Bailey’s exact rendering of her character’s fragility and strength and O’Brien’s complete capture of a teenage boy’s annoying, lovable nature. Amid the laughs and one-liners, there’s nothing flighty about Mud Blue Sky.