Not always for the rest of us, though. The two murky stories that Maxine's striving to clear up the mystery of her mother's death and the fate of the missing girl have no meaningful connection. That Maxine links them is as arbitrary as the fate that brought the girl and her mother to the region: Wanting to break with her past life, the mother closed her eyes and put her finger on the map. Defogging both mysteries reveals nothing of their deeper causes; the epiphany of her present discovery lets Maxine recover her missing memory of the past, but this isn't narrative development, only the unblocking of a road along which narrative might move. "You're stuck," the missing girl tells Maxine, comparing her to a frightened tightrope walker. "No going forward, no going back."
Maxine gets unstuck, but dramatically that's the whole event; the rest is speech-making. McLaughlin, fortunately, can write a beaut of a speech, heightening the language and twisting it into wonderful free-flowing skeins of imagery. When an actress with the emotional presence of Jones or Wilson sails along them, the resulting power is strong enough to keep you, at least temporarily, from noticing the stasis into which this high-flying play has steered itself while watching the pretty cloud formations instead of the controls. Because Lisa Peterson's unsteady directorial approach tends to play up the language of a scene rather than its action, performers who lack Jones's well of seem- ingly infinite emotional resource appear to be orating in a void.
The Weir By Conor McPherson Walter Kerr Theatre Broadway and 48th Street 230-6200
Tongue of a Bird By Ellen McLaughlin Joseph Papp Public Theatre 425 Lafayette Street 260-2400
In some respects, a void is what the play itself seems locked in. Though the maternal heritage, and the reciprocal bond of mother and daughter, are its themes, there's no dynamic within the relations, with one plot strand lacking a mother and the other a daughter. Unless McLaughlin's point is that the heritage itself, the whole idea of love between mother and daughter, is imaginary, a herstory each woman must invent alone which seems improbably bleak for a work that at least tries to build to an epiphany. One difficulty is that McLaughlin's limited her own opportunities for contrast by eliminating from her dramatic world not only any male characters, but virtually any hint of male consciousness. Maxine has neither father nor grandfather to refer to; any possible motive for the kidnapper other than abstract horror-movie menace is carefully excluded. Instead of making Tongue of a Bird more woman-centered this only makes the female characters seem more isolated from the world at large, men and women alike, without supplying any motive for their separateness. While The Weir's characters, though never deeply engaged, at least talk to each other, and by extension to us, all the verbal flamboyance and yearning intensity in Tongue of a Bird never quite brush away a disquieting sense that the person with whom the author most wants to communicate is herself.