Think Antigone. Or Hecuba. Even Medea. The tragic protagonist looms larger than life over the chorus, harrowing us with her pain. Now meet Madeline Livingston, the bereft mother at the center of Deborah Brevoort’s The Women of Lockerbie. This unhinged New Jersey housewife can climb the Scottish hills forever in search of her son’s bones, but she will never ascend into the company of the classical Greek heroines.
In this ambitious, intermittently affecting play—co-produced by the New Group and the Women’s Project—Brevoort has applied the conventions of Greek tragedy to events stemming from the 1988 terrorist destruction of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. The story derives from the “Laundry Project,” a real-life undertaking in which the towns-women washed the guts-smeared clothes of the victims and returned these items to their kin. Seven years after the crash, Bill Livingston (Larry Pine) has brought his wife Madeline (Judith Ivey) to Lockerbie for a memorial service for the victims. Madeline, who still grieves uncontrollably for her 20-year-old son Adam, turns angrily against her husband and all who seek to comfort her. The women of the town form a chorus, commenting on the couple’s plight and debating the meaning of the cataclysm that has shattered all their lives. To find purpose and closure, they wage a public relations war against a resistant U.S. State Department functionary to secure and launder the recovered garments.
Dramatically, the couple and the community make for an unequal match. The apparent protagonists do little but emote, while the “chorus” takes up the cause, charging forward with steely purpose and wit. As written and acted, Madeline seems the generic grieving mother. Portrayed by Ivey at a rarely relieved fever pitch, she appears strident and wearying. Pine, in a more subdued performance, does better, but misses at intimating his character’s pent-up grief. The village housewives, led by the impressive Jenny Sterlin as Olive, display more range and nuance, and Kathleen Doyle, as the cleaning woman Hattie, can be downright funny. But in the young American bureaucrat, they are up against only a paper antagonist.
The play’s language runs the gamut from the lyrical to the pedestrian to the maudlin, but Scott Elliott has directed the choral sequences with a hypnotic rhythm that elevates them. Madeline’s account of the awful moment she heard the news (while baking a pie) emerges flat and unaffecting. But the Scotswomen’s contrapuntal recitation creates a frisson: “I was driving to the filling station.” “I was walking the dog.” “I was baking a pie, like your wife.” “Suddenly the sky turned red.” “The sky shook.” “The pie fell.” “The tree at the end of the lane burst into flames.”
In its quieter moments, the play’s haunting atmosphere sinks in. Derek McLane’s undulating rising steps, gray upon gray, swept by mist, generate a stark land suggestive of elemental struggles, and Jason Lyons’s gloomy lighting and Ken Travis’s lonely soundscape intensify the brooding atmosphere. Positioning the actors sculpturally, Elliott crafts some dramatic tableaux. When Madeline’s screeching at last subsides, her husband’s pain breaks out in quiet sobs. As the play ends, with the women washing the bloody clothes in a stream, The Women of Lockerbie achieves a solemn dignity.