“A Route of Evanescence/With a revolving Wheel—/A Resonance of Emerald—/A Rush of Cochineal,” so Emily Dickinson described the hummingbird. But the lines apply equally well to Adam Bock’s avian comedy Five Flights. In a bright, swift swirl of language and incident, the play demonstrates Bock’s talent for unflowery poetry and unsyrupy compassion. The play may concern birds, but it isn’t at all feathery.
Upon the death of their father, three adult siblings argue over how to dispose of the house-sized aviary he built. Dad believed birds housed people’s souls; his children are unconvinced. Ed (the excellent Jason Butler Harner) wants to see the aviary crumble. Absent Bobby—represented by his overwrought wife, Jane (Joanna P. Adler)—proposes selling the land as a building site. Adele (Lisa Steindler) wishes to consecrate the space as a church for her messianic friend, Olivia (Alice Ripley, out of her depths). Olivia operates, via soapbox and pamphlets, the Church of the Fifth Day—that’s the one on which God created the birds of the air. Olivia preaches the gospel of lark and loon: “Oh sweet and oh and on great wings and small and all and all across the blue, blue sky. This is where we live now, they call. This is where we live!”
Even in the case of Olivia’s high-flown rhetoric, larded with internal rhymes, Bock keeps the language simple, monosyllabic. He doesn’t economize—he’s too prolix and sensuous for that—but he ensures that the deeply felt doesn’t spill over into the florid. He trusts to the actors to find the particular cadence in the quotidian. And, under Kent Nicholson’s direction, they mostly do. When Tom (Matthew Montelongo), an affable hockey player, suffers Ed’s romantic refusal, he says, “OK, sure, sure, sure. Sure. OK. That’s too bad. I. You’re sure. That’s too bad. That’s.” In Montelongo’s mouth, the repetitions and cracked rhythms are heartrending.
It’s Tom who articulates the title and structure of the piece. The five flights relate to the five-act structure of Russian ballet or an NHL game—Tom argues they’re essentially the same. First comes narrative, then a vision, then mad scenes, then the conclusion, and last, a little dance. The play certainly has some of the ballet’s dreaminess and some of its hermetic quality. The words—so lustrous and so particular—set the characters at some remove. But Bock wants the best for them—even tightly wound Jane—and the little dance he leaves them with offers no small solace. Like Shelley’s famous skylark, Bock has indeed a blithe spirit.