Fractured, funny, and just a little bit trippy, Maria Wegrzyn's Mud Blue Sky flies to the beat of its own idiosyncratic drummer. A Red Orchid Theatre's charmingly off-kilter and consistently engaging drama unfolds on one of those bizarre, elastic nights that slide into weirdness as the hours stretch toward dawn. The story follows three off-duty flight attendants holed up in a dubiously sanitary hotel, fueled by a ridiculously expensive bottle of cognac and a few spliffs from a baby-faced, heartsick high school pot dealer.
Directed with an astute hand by Shade Murray, Mud Blue Sky is the rare play that passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors: Beth, Sam, and Angie are three strong, multidimensional women whose conversations never center on their romantic partners. If you've never seen A Red Orchid ensemble members Mierka Girten, Kirsten Fitzgerald, and Natalie West at work, now's your chance to take in the ever-so-slightly cracked-out brilliance of three of Chicago's finest actors.
Flight attendants Beth (West) and Sam (Girten) are both weary of flying the friendly skies. Beth's got chronic back pain, exhaustion, and ambition enough to ditch her career. Sam is an off-kilter vixen, a doe-eyed woman whose every word sounds ever-so-slightly inappropriate. She's also preoccupied with the broken dishwasher and teenage son waiting for her back home. The third member of their one-night social circle is Angie (Fitzgerald), a former flight attendant who was fired for weight gain (excess poundage, notes Beth sardonically, is treated with less tolerance than cocaine-positive urine tests). Angie is immersed in a world of sorrow and quiet desperation, spending her days caring for her aging mother and missing the job she loved. The trio's long-night's journey into dawn takes an unexpected turn with the arrival of Jonathan (Matt Farabee), a forlorn, tuxedo-clad prom refugee lugging a scruffy backpack full of weed.
West has a wry, deadpan delivery that weights every word Beth utters with a sharp, no-nonsense fatalism that's flat-out hilarious. Girten's Sam seems subtly off-balance — she's a loose canon with an expressiveness that's priceless. Small moments such as the dazed wonderment Sam registers while inadvertently taking in some pay-per-view porn are worth a thousand words and the price of a ticket. Sam's sum total life experience doesn't seem entirely normal, and Girten's ability to knock off lines that illustrate this ("You can tell she was a gymnast before the implants") really make you curious about the world Sam lives in. As for Fitzgerald, she delivers a monologue late in the 90-minute production that is poignantly heartbreaking. As a woman whose life is not at all what she once dreamed of, Angie is a both strong and a victim, a product of the brutal unfairness that life dishes out. Finally, there's Farabee's Jonathan. He's a believable blend of adolescent angst, a boy on the cusp of adulthood who doesn't know what to make of the dysfunctional adults around him.
Wegrzyn confines the action to a Chicago hotel — or rather a hotel near O'Hare airport, "the goiter" of Chicago. Beholding set designer Jacqueline Penrod's dreary, anonymous hotel room will make you want to take a shower. This is one of those places where you can practically see a scrim of bacteria crawling over the TV remote.
It's clear from the start that Mud Blue Sky is going to be a piece rooted in conversation and emotion rather explosive events and flashy stage tricks. "You're stuck somewhere you don't want to be. You mess around. That's what happens," says Beth, succinctly summing up what happens in Mud Blue Sky. The beauty of the piece is embedded in the authenticity, uniqueness, and honesty that defines both the actions and the emotions playing out onstage. If you passed these people on the street, you probably wouldn't look at them twice. On stage, they're at once familiar and singularly compelling.
Squick factor aside, Mud Blue Sky is a vivid portrait of unlikely bonding and midlife doldrums. It isn't a play of thickly plotted events so much as an exploration of what makes this particular group of people tick, crack open, and break down. Each character is harboring pain, secrets, and yearnings. Wegryzn has a knack for capturing the loopiness and the sadness inherent to the human condition, and she does so here to great effect. Her keen ear for dialogue reveals the inner lives of ordinary people without lapsing into clichés or predictability. And in the hands of Murray's ensemble, each exchange rings true.
Director Murray would do well to pick up the pacing of Mud Blue Sky, especially in the early, somewhat static scenes between Beth and Jonathan. But that's a quibbling concern. Mud Blue Sky is the product of a writer with a skilled ear for dialogue and a gloriously seasoned cast that knows precisely what to do with it.