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A CurtainUp New Jersey Review
Flying Crows

Come on, Birdie, it's already after 6:30 AM, we got to get you out of here. You have a rendezvous with the Flying Crow.— Josh
  What are you talking about? I ain't even awake yet. — Birdie
flying crows
. Reathel Bean (in overalls) and Anthony Blaha
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Just so you know how the title relates to the play, the Flying Crow was renowned during its mid 20th century heyday as a diesel fueled passenger train that served the corridor between Kansas City, Missouri and the Gulf Coast. You could also say that Flying Crows is an apt description of the two inmates from the Missouri State Lunatic Asylum who use the train as a means of escape in James Glossman's earnest adaptation of Jim Lehrer's novel.

It is easy to see how the novel, inspired by true events, would interest Glossman who has previously adapted and dramatized Lehrer's The Special Prisoner, about a World War II incarcerated POW (previously produced at Playwrights Theater). Lehrer, who is probably best known as the anchor of Public Television's The News Hour, has an equally laudable reputation as the author of 16 novels, two memoirs and three plays. Not being familiar with the novel, I wonder if it succeeds better than the play does to make its characters come alive and earn our concern or empathy.

The play reveals two parallel stories. One plot line, set mostly in 1933, considers the camaraderie that grows between a recently incarcerated Birdie Carlucci and Josh, a long-time patient who goes out of his way to lend support to others whom he suspects suffer with the same psychosis as he. Referred to as lunatics by the staff, Birdie and Josh have evidently both seen and experienced the kind of horrific thing that can presumably make a normal person insane. But are they insane or do they have an agenda? The other plot, set in 1997, follows an investigation conducted by police lieutenant Randy Benton to discover what connection there is between an old man whom he discovers living in the bowels of the deserted Union Station for the past 64 years and an unsolved crime at the same location involving gangsters and the killing of policemen.

review continues below

.The freedom that allows the author of a novel to benefit from either a fluid narrative drive or a rambling stream of consciousness is rarely suitable for a playwright's purpose. Speed and directness is usually the better way to plum the essence of a plot. Some judicious pruning would be a good start. Through necessity in a play, a novel's non-essential or peripheral characters are often either dropped or consigned to morph into one person. In Glossman's dramatic consideration, four actors carry the burden of playing multiple characters as well as carrying the brunt of the exposition.

While this may work better in a spoof or comedy such as the current Broadway hit The 39 Steps, it prevents the commendable enough Reathel Bean, Prentiss Benjamin, Anthony Blaha, and Dan Domingues, from delving more than superficially into their characters. As the plot is constructed to jump back and forth in time, flashbacks galore, the actors assume their minute to minute changes with alacrity. The production is dependent upon the clever use of multi-purpose rocking chairs. Projections provide indications of place and specific dates to help us keep up with the fractured time line. All the technical credits, notably the sound and multimedia effects by Jeff Knapp, are welcome enhancements but under Glossman's perhaps too conscientious direction, the play takes a while to build up any steam even as we are witness to the asylum staff's brutal treatment of patients.

There is some curiosity triggered as Lt. Benton searches for clues and attempts to dredge up people who may know the story behind Birdie's decision to live out the rest of his life beneath Union Station. The question the play wants us to consider is whether it was something that Birdie saw or something in which he was complicit that has forced him to live this way. Despite his occasional forays as "others," Beane has the opportunity to impress us the most, as the arguably delusional but compassionate Josh whose flair for drama finds its most compelling outlet as the asylum's performance artist. His recitations offer the play's most gripping moments. They include his particularly vivid telling of the 1864 Centralia (Missouri) Massacre, in which bushwhackers attacked a train carrying Union soldiers whom they mutilated and killed in full view of bystanders.

Similarly Blaha filters a bit of playfulness into Birdie's basically dysfunctional behavior. He manages to get more than a little feel from a visiting "Somerset Sister," (Prentiss Benjamin) who comes to read poetry to the inmates. Benjamin, the daughter of actors Paula Prentiss and Richard Benjamin, adds to her versatility by playing a Harvey Girl as well as other women and men, including a dispassionate and sadistic surgeon at the asylum. Domingues drifts back and forth with conviction from an inquisitive Lt. Benton to the kindly and supportive Dr. Will Mitchell and "others." Ultimately, the play poses and answers the question: why does Birdie choose the stay the rest of his life in Union Station and why does Josh decide to return to the asylum.

The play certainly seems to be only moderately concerned with the cause and treatment of insanity. It does, however, consider the intrusion and inclusion of insanity as a personal defense mechanism and means of survival. It also invites us to consider whether insanity may also be ascribed as a practical consideration, one that is opportunistically imposed by circumstances. Even as the play pursues a course more circuitous than the one that the crow flies, Flying Crows does eventually give us the answers that seem so long in coming.

Flying Crows
  Adapted (from the novel by Jim Lehrer) and Directed by James Glossman

Cast: Reathel Bean, Prentiss Benjamin, Anthony Blaha, Dan Domingues Set Design: Drew Francis
  Costume Design: Bettina P. Bierly
  Lighting Design: John Wade
  Sound and Multimedia Design: Jeff Knapp
  Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes including intermission
  Playwrights Theater, 33 Green Village Road, Madison, NJ 07940
  (973) – 514 – 1787 X 10
  Prices: ($25 - $27.50, Seniors: $22.50 - $24.75, Students: $15)
  Dates: 01/31/08 to 02/17/08; Opening night 02/01/08
  Performances: Thursday February 7 at 5:30 PM and February 14 at 3 PM and 8PM. Fridays at 8 PM, Saturday at 8 PM; Sundays at 3 PM.
  Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 02/01/08
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