In a brand-new production, the Santa Fe Playhouse takes local playwright Marguerite Louise Scott's competently written Flight Plan and presents us with a complicated and technically profound piece of theater.
The players are Arianna (Samantha Orner), a pyromaniac rescued just before jumping off a bridge; Celia (Danielle Louise Reddick), who cut off her friend's head, covered it with peanut butter and threw it to a dog; James (Tyler Logan), a ketchup-obsessed Norman Bates-ish pop culture savant; and Bernard (Don Converse), a senile older man who can only plaintively call the name "Doris." They're all thrown into Sunnyland Sanctuary, a low-income mental health facility; the stage is stripped to its cinder block walls, painted stark white. Seems like a lot of info, but the characters get plenty of establishment (we don't even arrive at Sunnyland until 30 minutes in), and the show—which runs long, at perhaps two and a half hours—is swift and engaging in the hands of this smart ensemble cast.
The script, a "true-ish" account of Scott's encounters with the mental health care system (or lack thereof) in the United States, is ambitious. Reviewing it is delicate because, as Scott told me after the show, it's her insides pulled out; to critique a vulnerable, autobiographical work isn't a job to be taken lightly.
Thus, I'll say with gravity that, while I believe the story and the characters are visceral recreations of Scott's experiences, a presentation of those experiences as a piece of art to be consumed by an audience needed a bit more nuance. The script, which she workshopped extensively during production with Playhouse Artistic Director Vaughn Irving as dramaturge, saw changes until the week before tech.
Firstly, the technical presentation of the show shone. Characters move desks, beds, doors and walls (all painted white) around on wheels at scene breaks. Sound design by Jeff Nell, which was highly collaborative with director Christine McHugh, featured recorded voiceovers of characters' words played simultaneously with spoken monologues and soliloquies, to unnerving effect. Police involvement is represented sparely by flashing lights in the corners of the ceiling. (Speaking of lighting, will someone please give designer Monique Lacoste a dang Tony or something? I could have watched this show with earplugs. And any designer unafraid to turn off every single light in the room—much rarer than you'd think—gets my full support.)
This brings us, however, to my hesitations with the script. Even as it ran kind of long, there was some exposition lacking (Celia's connection to electromagnetic fields; or what it is, exactly, that James is so obsessed with—ketchup? Star Trek? Carly Simon? His mother? There's a lot there). There's a line between giving the audience's imagination free reign and simply not explaining things enough; that line was blurry.
Additionally, the role of Nurse Hammer grated on me. While actress Linda Loving was positively hilarious as the cartooney, cupcake-pilfering, med-pushing, just-a-really-horrible-person matriarch of the low-income psych ward, I wish she'd been written more prismatically. Of course, everyone has their own experiences of the mental health system, whether through ourselves or our loved ones, so I carry baggage; but every time Hammer made yet another quip about blithely shoving pills down her patients' throats, my heart panged. I thought of nurses' tireless attempts at care of those close to me even when the patients seemed so far beyond help, or how utterly screwed some folks I know would be were it not for pharmaceuticals. Hammer, however, was just relentlessly callous.
This is not to say that providers are always right, virtuous or angelic. Absolutely not. And I trust Scott's depiction of the cartoonish Hammer, as well as that of Dr. Fraued (played by Vaughn Irving, and please pronounce it "Frowd"), both highly problematic characters deep in the pockets of drug companies to a comic degree. But where was the other side? Even one moment of poignancy or humanity from Hammer may have changed my misgivings. (Fraued did become more accessible as the show went on, so it seems the concept was in Scott's mind.)
That lack, unfortunately, cheapens a script that is otherwise nicely idiosyncratic for the patients. The four actors, too, are all well-suited, and make it look easy to act a story alternately hilarious, disturbing, haunting and raw. Reddick's Celia is a heartbreakingly kind person in a mostly senseless place. Orner, as Arianna, physically transforms in a way that it is an absolute delight to see; her face and body become liquid as we move from scene to scene, transforming with whatever drug cocktail or emotional state influences her character. While Logan's James can sometimes be a little too affected to the point of slapstick, his consistent physical mannerisms make the character believable.
Ultimately, the characters and their trajectories were square pegs that slipped perfectly into square holes. But don't misunderstand me; this wasn't a bad thing at all. It worked really well, actually. The action was airtight. I utterly and completely believed it.
The thing about square pegs in square holes is that you don't have to force them. We get that medication isn't always the solution. We get that nurses can be callous. And one moment in particular, focusing on Bernard, shattered my heart at the very end of act one—the final moments before intermission were so intense that I actually had chills in my shins.
But then, a heavy-handed sound cue, aiming to drive the delicate and perfectly perched point home, took an unnecessary sledgehammer to that great little square peg.
It was perfect, guys. Why didn't you trust us to sit with it and deeply understand it? This cast can be trusted to communicate what we need—and, in a production as technically sound as this, we don't need any extra help.