(left to right: Alice da Cunha, James Doherty, Elana Elyce, Michael E Martin in The House Theatre of Chicago’s UNITED FLIGHT 232. Photo by Michael Brosilow)
Once you embark on United Flight 232, there is no unbuttoning your seatbelt, no releasing the tight grip your white knuckled fingers and no calming your racing heart. You can be told to prepare for this 90-minute journey but no amount of “brace, brace, brace” will dampen the impact and its long lasting effects. If you board this flight, do not expect to get off the same person. Remember to breathe.
The House Theatre regularly produces gripping work, but this is arguably their most intense and terrifying. The atmosphere is created from the moment you set foot in the gate – the all too familiar walk from the terminal to the airplane. The carpeted floor, the shoulder to shoulder seating arrangement, the encapsulating tube of white engineered flying machines. The minimal set by John Musial understands the concept perfectly – you are on a doomed flight and there is nothing here that can help you. This diverse cast handles Vanessa Stalling’s dynamic staging with ease – morphing in and out of characters, committing to powerful choreography, unifying their voices to speak for one and for all. Often, dramatic licensing of factual events takes the risk of being manipulative and disingenuous. This isn’t the case here. Performances are authentic and heartbreaking and funny. When the flight attendant calls her dad to tell him she is still alive, we are her family on the other side of the receiver collapsing in tearful joy.
Out of the 296 souls on board, 185 survived. There were 50 children on that flight. There is still no active safety procedure for kids under two on airplanes. These are just some facts. If you want to know how they will move you, you must make your way to see this production. Fred Rogers said that when something catastrophic happens, “…you will always find the people who are helping.” It is an admirable human quality that when taking on the responsibility of another person, fear transforms into strength. And when you are faced with taking your last breath, you use it to express love. In its heart, this play carries messages of humanity. This production is unforgettable. You can add that to the list of facts.
UNITED FLIGHT 232 is a near-death experience. Don’t be surprised if you have survivor’s guilt. Don’t be surprised if you walk away a kinder human being. Of if you exit the beautiful Chopin Theater and stand in awe of the blue sky. Or if you go home and hold your family tight and tell them you love them. Or if you turn to the person wiping away their tears next to you and be glad you are traveling together on this little adventure we call life.