Review: “United Flight 232”

Photos by Michael Brosilow


Where: The House Theatre of Chicago, Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division St.
When: through Oct. 21
Tickets: $30-$50
Phone: 773-769-3832

Theater Critic

Like the many accounts emerging from the hurricane zones recently, “United Flight 232” tempers a terrible tragedy with tales of heroism and humanity moving enough to make the experience of seeing it more uplifting than depressing.

Based on Laurence Gonzales’ 2014 book, “Flight 232: A Story of Disaster and Survival,” the 85-minute docudrama adapted and directed by Vanessa Stalling was commissioned by The House Theatre of Chicago and had a hit world premiere last year, winning a Jeff Award for best production (midsize). Now it’s enjoying a top-flight reprise with a terrific ensemble composed of original and new actors who know enough to let the material speak for itself.

Flight 232 on July 19, 1989, should have been uneventful. The DC-10 with 296 on board was headed from Denver to Philadelphia with a stop at Chicago’s O’Hare airport, but about an hour into the flight there was a loud noise and one of the engines went out. This shouldn’t have been a serious problem; however, metal from the explosion severed all the hydraulic fluid lines, and without hydraulic fluid, the pilots couldn’t control the plane. They tried to keep it from rolling over for 44 minutes as they diverted for an emergency landing at Sioux City Gateway Airport, where it crashed in a corn field and broke into five pieces. Miraculously, 184 people survived.

The miracle of Stalling’s script and staging is that she captures so much with so little. Nine actors play a plethora of passengers, an air traffic controller, three flight attendants, and four men in the cockpit. They speak directly to the audience, and although they keep switching back and forth, it isn’t difficult to keep them straight, partly because each gives his or her name and, often, a seat number or other reference point. Besides being privy to their fears before the crash, we also get glimpses of their pasts, coping mechanisms, and plans if they survive, as well as vignettes of their interactions. After the plane goes down, we learn how they survived and who didn’t, though of course, the question of why some lived and some died remains a combination of accident and mystery.

The simplicity of the design also is most effective. The audience enters through a hall that resembles a jetway and sits on either side of the playing area—on chairs like those moved around by the cast. John Musial’s scenic design includes floor-to-ceiling off-white material curving around the auditorium to mimic the shape of an airplane, and Paul Deziel’s projections fill us in on technical details like the seat arrangement. The stunning lighting design by William C, Kirkham and sound design and music by Steve Labedz do the rest. Delia Ridenour’s costumes consist of navy blue suits for all, appropriate for both flyers and crew.

Two of the flight attendants wear skirts, but the chief flight attendant, Jan Brown Lohr (Brenda Barrie), is in pants. Known by the others as a stickler for the fine points of safety and hospitality, she explains why at the outset and also guides us through the action. This includes hinting that one of the passengers will save her but not giving details until the time comes. Stalling’s use of this technique to spark anticipation and the increasingly intense pacing build the tension that keeps us riveted to what the characters are saying. They’re played by Elana Elyce, Johnny Arena, Alice da Cunha, Abu Ansari, Dan Lin, Carlos Olmedo, Joseph Sultani, and Jessica Dean Turner.

In addition to unanswered questions about the mechanics of the accident, there’s an undercurrent of criticism of the airline that’s especially apropos given recent much-publicized instances of mistreatment of passengers. Because of a special promotion, United Flight 232 had an unusual number of unaccompanied minors on board, and from the example we see, they were pretty much left in the care of their seatmate-strangers. Even more directly, Lohr takes the carrier to task for its policy regarding children younger than two who are allowed to sit on a parent’s lap. She was required to tell a mother to put her baby on the floor and hold it there, even though she knew it was unlikely to save the child. Still haunted, she adds the kicker: Even though she started an organization to change the policy, to this day it hasn’t happened.

There are many possible takeaways from “United Flight 232,” but two are pretty basic. It’s comforting to know that in a crisis the people around you are more likely to be helpful than not. And always make the time to appreciate being alive and your loved ones, because anything can happen anytime.