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A haunting look at coping with grief

“The Women of Lockerbie” takes a poetic and at times surreal approach to unspeakable tragedy – the explosion of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988.

Playwright Deborah Brevoort adopts the structure of Greek tragedy, complete with a “chorus” of Scottish women, to help make the story more bearable. Director Sara Edlin-Marlowe also approaches this story with a lyrical and sensitive touch, with the goal of catharsis, not despair.

Yet, don’t kid yourself – it remains a wrenching, disturbing and at times upsetting story.

It has to be. “The Women of Lockerbie” is about a parent’s grief for a lost child, and nothing is more profoundly emotional. In all honesty, I found this play difficult to endure at times, partly because of some faults within the script, but mostly because it was so well and vividly performed.

I dare any parent – or anybody at all – to remain unmoved by the anguish, the grief bordering on insanity, the tears (or sometimes the lack of tears) demonstrated by Kate Vita as Madeline Livingston and Kevin Connell as Bill Livingston.

They are the New Jersey parents of college-age Adam, who died on Pan Am 103. They have come to Lockerbie, seven years to the day after the tragedy, to look for any shred of clothing, any remnant at all, of their son.

Madeline roams compulsively over the hills, talking to herself, talking to her dead son, talking to anybody but her forlorn husband. Vita plays Madeline with a Greek tragic heroine’s eerie madness, as if she has been possessed by the gods. In a sense, she has been. She has been possessed by the Fates, the fate that caused her son to be sitting in that plane, on that day, directly over the bomb.

Vita, heartbreakingly, runs down the list of things that could have caused fate to turn out differently: She could have booked him on Delta, she could have agreed to let him stay an extra day in London. Like a good modern American, she does not blame her fate on the gods. She blames herself, laceratingly.

Literally, laceratingly. She tears at her breast so intensely she draws blood. One of the play’s key moments comes when she opens her shirt to reveal the blood – although the drama was muted on my side of the theater, since we saw only her back (the play was performed in the round).

Connell is brilliant as Bill, who is forced to keep his emotions in check because his wife’s are so unchecked. Playing restraint is more difficult than playing crazy, yet when I look back on it, Connell’s deeply felt and perfectly delivered monologues are the ones that have stayed with me most vividly. (Of course, as a father, I probably identified with him more strongly.)

The other fine performances all come with Scottish brogues. Marianne McLaughlin, Nina Kelly, Sara Blythe Smith and Susan Creed play Scottish women who are involved in the Laundry Project: a drive to persuade the American government to release the victims’ clothes from a warehouse. The women want to launder the clothes and return them to the families.

They have all mastered their brogues – one of the most difficult accents to get right. More importantly than that, they exude a sense of down-to-earth Scottish dignity and strength. They also beautifully fulfill their function as the Greek chorus, occasionally explaining and commenting on events that might otherwise seem unexplainable.

My feelings about Brevoort’s script are far less favorable. I can name the exact point where the play lost me: About halfway through, when a straw man by the name of George Jones set foot on the stage.

Brandon Montang, who plays Jones, was not the problem at all.

The problem was that as written, Jones is a stock bogeyman – the unfeeling American bureaucrat who has no soul. The play lost credibility at that point and never regained it. “The Women of Lockerbie” became something different: a clumsy and totally predictable tale of the soulful women triumphing over unfeeling government.

It did not help that the climax of the story – when the women dramatically triumph at the warehouse – takes place off-stage and is delivered in a monologue.

Still, what will stick with me in this play is not the plot – it’s the unadulterated grief of parents mourning their children.

Yes, it’s hard to bear. But there’s a reason that the word “catharsis” is associated with Greek theater. It means purifying or relieving emotions through art. Catharsis is a good thing – and “The Women of Lockerbie” delivers it.

“The Women of Lockerbie” continues through Feb. 22. Call (509) 325-2507 for tickets.

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