‘United Flight 232’ a Compelling Lesson on Life’s Fragility

Quin's Article 2(1)Graphic by Adam Elliott

By Lauren Quinlan, Critic

Like many cash-strapped people, the cost of an airplane ticket often keeps me from booking a flight. This lack of air travel, however, doesn’t keep me from thinking about planes. More often than not, I am rattled by a booming, low-hanging plane sailing through the skies on my walk home. Being so close to O’Hare Airport – coincidentally, the same airport connected to the real Flight 232’s planned destination – puts me in many planes’ flight paths.

My oldest brother recently graduated college with a degree in Commercial Aviation and plans to become a commercial pilot – the very same profession of those at the wheel of Flight 232. Prior to seeing United Flight 232, the thought of him actually becoming a pilot didn’t seem very immediate or very frightening. Just like the 296 people on board Flight 232, I felt the possibility of a plane crash was slim to none. Before being shaken by this play, I was more selfishly concerned with my brother joining the military than I was him flying commercial planes. United Flight 232 made me see that although there is more of a certainty of danger with operating military planes, there is also no guarantee of safety in flying – or riding in – passenger planes. In this production by the House Theatre, the passengers on board and the audience realize together that life is finite and can be taken at any moment, and that security in your situation is not a given.

It’s not easy to convince an audience of the reality present in a theatrical world, but the ensemble supporting United Flight 232 does a tremendous job of enveloping themselves in the real-life passengers they were portraying and making the horrific events of the crash feel all too possible. Through subtle, synchronized movement work and John Musial’s intimate scenic design, the ensemble conveyed the gravity of their situation without relying on technological elements. While I was never quite sure where the audience was in the context of the ensemble – observers, fellow passengers, or otherwise – I certainly felt connected to them and was close enough to hear their labored, anxious breathing while we contemplated the impending crash.

While the clarification of the audience’s role felt unfinished during the performance, the House Theatre as an institution was carefully considering every point of contact with audience members prior to the show’s beginning. When waiting to be let in, I overheard the box office manager explaining how they have to take special precaution during moments of interaction with the audience, like presenting them with their ticket. Of the 296 people aboard Flight 232, 185 people survived, and many have come to see this show. Surviving such a traumatic, horrifying event like a plane crash leaves unknown scars – scars that may not even be known to the person until they are locked into similar circumstances. Saying something as second nature as “Welcome to United Flight 232, here’s your ticket” could be triggering to survivors of the crash, priming them for pain before even witnessing a play that examines the most traumatic time of their lives.

A year or so ago, “trigger warnings” were a hot button issue, both in theatre and in educational environments. The issue proved to be divisive, but I believe that people on both sides of the aisle would agree that survivors – already being brave in seeing the show at all – would appreciate not being rattled by unintentional word association. United Flight 232 is a “docu-drama” piece of theatre, where the characters are real people who are still alive. Considering the power of triggers is especially important in this situation, so that the experience of the play can be more of a healing process and less about opening up new wounds.

Despite being continually captivated by the gravitas happening on stage, I found myself wondering how the director, Vanessa Stalling, would craft the scene of the plane crashing into the ground – a pivotal moment in the play. How Stalling ended up staging it was beautiful and quietly moving, but it lacked the explosion and emotional arrest I was hoping for. I found my mind wandering to The Ruffians’ recent remount of Burning Bluebeard. Bluebeard is another “docu-drama” show that has a Chicago focus, telling the stories of some of the performers onstage during the tragic Iroquois Fire of 1903. Their critical moment was both unexpected and enthralling. The majority of the casualties of the fire happened as a result of a massive fireball that was hurled at the upper levels of the audience, lighting the entire theatre on fire. That climactic moment was stylized as an empty stage accompanied by a deafening fireball sound effect, designed to feel like flames were coming at you from all sides. The sound of the roaring flames and screaming victims were all around me, and I felt truly stunned for the first time as an audience member in the theatre. My heart started to race, but I couldn’t move an inch. As the moment of impact in United Flight 232 drew closer, I became more and more tense, mirroring the passengers on board and buying into their impending peril. Instead of being arrested into astonishment, I was able to release and look at the unraveling action through a diminished cloud of anxiety. I breathed a sigh of relief.

I am not advocating for powerful, subtle storytelling to take  a backseat to spectacle, but including such a sound effect could assist in conveying the full weight of such a tragedy. The show is billed as “a haunting true story of compassion and grace,” and while I will not soon forget the stories of those aboard Flight 232, I may be more haunted by the events of the crash if there was more of a transfixing, multidimensional storytelling element.

I also found myself wondering whether or not the people the ensemble were portraying were survivors or victims of the crash. All the actors ended up being survivors who talked about the victims of Flight 232 – people, invisible to the audience, who bonded in a time of crisis. While the idea of an invisible memorial is stirring, there is a certain poignancy  to hearing voices from beyond the grave, voices that didn’t get to tell their stories. Tragic events are often inexplicable, but hearing the full account from survivors and victims alike could help to work toward a more powerful understanding of their experience.

When: March 11-May 1
Where: The Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division Street
Runtime: 1 hour, 35 minutes

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