In my high school Latin class we learned phrases like, "Vestis virum reddit" (clothes make the man), Julius Caesar's famous quote, "Veni, vidi vici" (I came, I saw, I conquered) and the always hilarious nerdy Latin joke, "Semper ubi sub ubi," which literally means, "Always where under where." Attempting to communicate via Latin phrases and proverbs was, as one might guess, a very difficult lesson in the limitations of language. Writers also deal with language limitations, like how to describe something familiar in a fresh way: the air on a fall afternoon when the sun has warmed the leaves. That moment when sadness finally dissipates. The earthy smell of almonds.
In the Montana Actors' Theatre's new production Sound of Planes, playwright Larke Schuldberg explores language barriers and the ways in which people use language to shape their reality. At times it's literally about not understanding a language—German, in this case. But it's also about not having enough words or the right words to fully describe the depth of love and loss.
Sound of Planes, directed by Kaet Morris, follows a girl named Margaret who goes to Berlin to live with her aunt after a car crash kills her parents on 9/11. She falls in love with a German boy but moves back to Seattle where she meets her husband who is, eventually, deployed to Iraq. While the action of the play is mostly focused on Margaret's personal life, the context of the political times weaves its way into the dialog and under the surface of the storyline. That her parents were killed on 9/11 but not by terrorists gives her personal tragedy an extra layer of weirdness. When she first arrives in Germany, the country is warmly sympathetic to the 9/11 tragedy, but as the war in Iraq begins, Margaret watches the mood change.
The action of the play is not linear: It flip-flops between Margaret's time before Germany, in Germany and her days afterward in Seattle. On top of that complexity, three different women play Margaret. At first it's easy to assume that each Margaret is just Margaret at a different stage in her life, but, after awhile, as each Margaret starts repeating scenes of a previous Margaret, it becomes clear that they're all different versions of the same person. Confusing? It can be at times, but it's like patiently putting together a big puzzle and, for her part, Schuldberg keeps the overall story cohesive.
Melana K. Harker seems like the youngest version of Margaret. She is difficult to hear sometimes through her softer speech, but she absolutely embodies the awkwardness and angst of a young woman just out of her teens who doesn't yet know her place in the larger world. She's like an arthouse character in a Hal Hartley film: offbeat, disengaged, a little stiff.
Tylyn Carmean is naturally charming as one of the other Margarets. Her chemistry with Tim Larson's Jonathan is incredible, especially when they first meet at the Seattle coffee shop and, later, when he's teaching her to drive years after her parents were killed while driving. Their affectionate joking is the best indication of how much they love each other and that alone makes the ending all the more weighty. Ironically, it's in a scene when Margaret actually tells Jonathan "I love you" a number of times that the sentiment actually feels false and overdone. It's those over-dramatized moments—and there are a couple of them—when the language of the play and the actors fail to communicate authentic feeling.
Sound of Planes has its lulls and its confusing elements. Colton Swibold's Jan doesn't feel developed beyond a German accent and a faint interest in politics, making it difficult to understand why Margaret is drawn to him. And though Margaret's aunt Anna, played by the very talented Ann Peacock, is an important balance to the play, the dynamic between she and Margaret could use a more distinct arc between Margaret's arrival in Germany and the two characters' eventual falling out.
The play has brilliant moments, too. Samantha Pollington gets one of the most dramatic parts as another version of Margaret. In the scene she's sitting at the kitchen table and she describes the moment as if she's conjugating verbs in a classroom. "She sweeps. She is sweeping. She swept." It's a scene that could be utterly cliché due to the subject matter, but Pollington keeps it from melodrama, carefully building up the anxiety to its climax. This is the unveil: How language fails us when the worst happens. But, while words fail the character of Margaret in this moment, Schuldberg's demonstration of that failure is portrayed with an artful understanding of language—and that's what makes this play a victory.
Sound of Planes continues at the Crystal Theatre Thursday, Feb. 3–Saturday, Feb. 5, at 7:30 PM nightly. Thursday night: $12/$6 students. Friday and Saturday nights: $15/7.50$ students.