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Tongue of a Bird
Suzanne Gutierrez, left, and Kristen Beckmann rehearse a scene from the University of Montana School of Theatre & Dance production of “Tongue of a Bird.” Photo by TOM BAUER/Missoulian

Do you believe in ghosts?

     Of course you do. Everybody alive is visited by them from time to time, if not daily.

They’re the regrets, the anguish, the pain and the trauma of our pasts that haunt us and sometimes define us.

So it is with Maxine, a woman tortured not by the memories of her long-dead mother, but the lack of them.

Maxine is the central figure in playwright Ellen McLaughlin’s 1999 drama “Tongue of a Bird,” a UM School of Theatre and Dance production starting Tuesday in the Masquer Theatre.

“The only thing she knows about her mother is that she had a mental illness, and that she killed herself,” said John DeBoer, a UM assistant professor of drama who is leading the five-woman cast.

Maxine, a search and rescue pilot, has been hired to help find a girl feared to have been abducted and missing somewhere in the Adirondacks.

The play at first, said DeBoer, unfolds “as a traditional potboiler,” but then the fantasies take over.

Enter the ghosts.

Two of them – one the young missing girl, the other Maxine’s dead mother. And both of them are talking to Maxine as she pilots her plane over the treetops.

The girl is about the same age Maxine was when her mother took her own life. What the ghosts say to Maxine fleshes out the nagging questions the play presents, only to add a more poignant one: Are the ghosts real? Or are they merely a manifestation of Maxine’s angst, her anger, at not knowing her mother or how and why she took her own life?

“She can’t remember the experience of her mother,” said DeBoer. “She’s missing all those pieces. So her search for these missing people and the process of trying to reunite them represents something she’s trying to fulfill.”

*****

Most of us have a dozen hazy recollections of our childhood we fantasize about being able to relive. Humans have a remarkable ability to psychologically rewrite the past, especially the moments that brought us pain.

To that end, DeBoer made the appearance of these ghosts as fantastic and other-wordly as possible.

“I hope I have left the visitations ambiguous,” he said. “So you ask, ‘Are they real, or are they in her mind?’ ”

And consequently, the question becomes: Is what Maxine learns from the spirits the truth, or is it only her psychological need to fill in the story of a childhood trauma?

Ultimately, the audience is forced to balance the psychological and the spiritual, and answer the question themselves.

Most other questions the play introduces have hard answers. There is enough resolution to bring at least some satisfaction, with one grand exception, said DeBoer.

“I think the only question not answered in the production is, ‘Will everything be OK?’ ”

The play stars Kristen Beckmann, Suzanne Fortin Guttierrez, Hannah Paton, Nichole Pellantand Bridget Smith.

Reach Jamie Kelly at 523-5254 or at jkelly@missoulian.com.

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