The facts are cut and dry. On December 21, 1988, PanAm Flight 103 from London to JFK exploded above the village of Lockerbie, Scotland, scattering bodies and debris over 845 square miles, a terrorist bomb hidden inside its front cargo space not only killing all 259 on board but ending the lives of 11 Scots going about about their daily lives in Lockerbie, never suspecting that the sky would soon be quite literally falling upon them. A number of years later, the women of Lockerbie set up a laundry project to wash the 11,000 articles of clothing found amongst the plane’s wreckage, after which the women packed and shipped them to the victims’ families around the world.
Playwright Deborah Brevoort takes these facts and puts a human face on them—to unforgettable effect—in her 2001 drama The Women Of Lockerbie, particularly powerful this summer of 2012 as staged outdoors in the rustic Topanga hills of Theatricum Botanicum—about the closest approximation of the hills of Lockerbie that any American audience is ever likely to get.
Seven years have passed since the crash when first we meet Madeline Livingston (Susan Angelo), a New Jersey housewife who has traveled to Lockerbie with husband Bill (Thad Geer) in search of “closure,” if such a thing is ever truly possible when dealing with the unfathomable death of a child—in the Livingstons’ case their 20-year old son Adam. Still stricken with a grief that cannot be assuaged by either time or a husband’s love, Madeline roams the hills where the plane crashed in search of Adam’s remains, or indeed of anything that might have belonged to her beloved son. It matters not that Adam was sitting in the very compartment where the bomb exploded and his entire body likely blown to smithereens. Nothing Bill or any of the women of Lockerbie can say to Madeline will deter her from her mission.
Meanwhile, Bill finds himself bonding with a group of local women (Ellen Geer as Olive Jones and Victoria Hilyard and Elizabeth Tobias as Women 1 and 2), who have undertaken their own personal mission. With the crash investigation finally completed, the women of Lockerbie have petitioned the U.S. government to release to them the passengers’ clothing, sealed in evidence bags for the last seven years and about to be torched unless something can be done to convince U.S. official Bill Jones (Blake Edwards) to agree to their request.
Though doubtless sympathetic with the women’s noble intentions, Jones will not be swayed. The clothing is contaminated by bits and pieces of human remains and stained with the victims’ blood. It must be destroyed, closure be damned.
From these two parallel plot threads, playwright Brevoort has woven an extraordinarily moving drama of grief, rage, and redemption, punctuated here and there with the gift of laughter thanks to the character of Hattie, who works for Bill and is brought to irrepressible life by the inimitable Katherine Griffith.
I first saw The Women Of Lockerbie in its 2007 American premiere at Culver City’s Actors’ Gang, a superb 99-seat production blessed with extraordinary performances. Ditto its current incarnation at Theatricum Botanicum—and then some—given an outdoor setting it could well have been written to be performed in, inspired direction by Melora Marshall, and the addition of a Greek (make that Scottish) chorus, who set the scene with a few folk songs and return from time to time to do “background work” as residents of Lockerbie.
As Madeline, Angelo gives one of the year’s most brilliant performances, digging so deep into a grieving mother’s agony that her work reaches the epic proportions of a tragic Greek heroine. (Ellen) Geer’s work is memorable as well, and never more so than when the feisty, strong-willed, big-hearted Olive reveals to Madeline her own personal connection to the Lockerbie crash.
Hilyard and Tobias are simply marvelous as two women Brevort has left unnamed, the better to represent all the women of Lockerbie, and as for Griffith, the Best Lead Performance Scenie winner (for The Devil With Boobs) is once again a veritable force of nature and the provider of some much needed laughter amidst the heartbreak and tears.
The men are terrific too, (Thad) Geer giving us a husband about at the end of his rope as he sees his marriage nearing the point of total disintegration, and Edwards squaring off against a band of women we know he will ultimately be no match for.
Giana Bommarito, Ian Campbell, Liz Eldridge, Cassandra Elwell, Emily McLeod, Taylor Jackson Ross, and Frank Weidner are the ensemble, whose vocal and instrumental talents provide a mood-and-place-setting introduction to The Women Of Lockerbie, and whose insertion into several key scenes makes the production at Theatricum Botanicum even stronger.
Kudos go out to costume designer Erica D. Schwartz, properties master Shen Heckel, sound designer Ian Flanders, lighting designer Zachary Moore, lighting assistant Lauren Tietz, and dialect coach Susan Clark, whose contributions add greatly to the power of this production. Elna Kordijan is stage manager and Jenny Brum assistant stage manager.
Though Theatricum Botanicum’s late Spring-to-early Autumn seasons are probably best known for presenting the Shakespearean oeuvre under the sun or stars, contemporary plays are equally fortunate to get the Botanicum touch. The Women Of Lockerbie is a truly inspired choice for their 2012 season, one that promises a theatrical experience unlikely to be forgotten for years to come.
The Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga.
July 29, 2012
Photos: Ian Flanders