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Theater Review: United Flight 232

by Beki Pineda

UNITED FLIGHT 232 – Adapted by Vanessa Sterling from the novel by Laurence Gonzales; Directed by Amanda Berg Wilson. Produced by The Catamounts (presented at the Dairy Arts Center, 2590 Walnut) through March 9. Tickets available at  303-444-SEAT or thecatamounts.org.

These are the facts upon which this production is based: On July 19, 1989, a United flight left Denver at 2:09 bound for Philadelphia with a stopover in Chicago with 296 souls on board. At 3:16, an hour into the flight, a rotor on the DC10’s rear engine split apart and exploded backward slicing all three hydraulic lines to the steering mechanisms which kept the plane aloft. Within 14 seconds, the crew lost the ability to steer the plane and it began a slow journey down making large right hand circles. The flight crew fought to keep the plane horizontal and in the air while the attendants worked to calm the passengers and prepare them for–at best–an extremely bumpy landing or–at worst–a crash that would be deadly to many, if not all, of them. At 4:00 on a sunny afternoon in July, what started as a routine flight became an exercise in survival. We know from the beginning that 111 died in the ensuing landing on an abandoned landing strip at the Sioux City, Iowa airport, but 185 survived. This is the story of the small acts of courage that created this incredible survival rate.

The nine actors in this production play all members of the flight crew – cockpit and cabin – and twelve of the passengers. With only metal chairs that are carried with crisp precision to different positions to simulate the seats in the aircraft, they take us step by step through the afternoon. They insert personality and humanity into each character, revealing their innermost thoughts as they prepare for the inevitable. An added twist to this flight was that there were 48 unaccompanied minors on board as a part of a Children’s Day promotion by United. Many passengers paired themselves with one of the kids to steady them and give them assistance in getting out of the aircraft after the landing. In a true ensemble presentation, part of the story is told in first person dialogue, other parts are like an FAA report recreating the incident, and some are given the air of a story repeated at the dinner table for the tenth time. The performance is riveting; even though you know from the beginning how this is going to end, getting there is an engrossing process.

The actors – Archie Archuleta, Tesha Farris, Sam Gilstrap, Karen LaMoureaux, Adrienne Martin-Fullwood, Jaxon Maxwell, Josh Robinson, Austin Terrell, and Maggie Tisdale – bring life to each character they introduce, making the narrative easy to follow. Passengers are introduced by name and seat number, which we learn was part of the survival roulette. Anyone who lived in Denver at the time will remember the footage shot through a chain link fence at the edge of the runway as the plane barreled into the ground, broke apart and flipped over and the stories of the passengers running into the nearby corn field to escape the smoke and fire.

The set consisted of the chairs mentioned before carried to various positions in the playing space and soft sculpture pieces hanging from the ceiling suggestive of clouds or the smooth flowing lines of airplane wings on a healthy flight, designed by Brian Freeland. The costumes by Steffani Day were simple uniforms of navy pants or skirts with white shirts, indicative of the typical flight crew garb of the time. Because of the staging, this production had one of the most complicated light plots I’ve ever seen executed. The audience seated around the parameter of the black box theatre on chairs identical to the set chairs found themselves with a cast member often standing or sitting next to them. A series of small spotlights picked up these individual actors as they stood to speak their next lines. Which meant to keep the narrative flowing from actor to actor, the lights were bouncing off and on from all over the stage, in addition to illuminating the center of the stage for the many group scenes. The genius behind this complicated design was Matt Schlief who, in spite of his fourteen yeas of lighting experience, is designing his first show for Catamounts. In addition to having a great light design, you also have to have the person who can calmly execute it. In this production, that is the Stage Manager Laura Owsley (also on her first assignment with Catamounts) who deserves a special pat on the back for keeping her wits about her and all the actors in the light.

A WOW factor of 9!!