Former Angel Ellen McLaughlin Spreads Her Writer's Wings in Bird

Former Angel Ellen McLaughlin Spreads Her Writer's Wings in Bird I love to fly," says the actor-playwright Ellen McLaughlin. "But I'm also suspicious of my addiction to it."
Ellen McLaughlin.
Ellen McLaughlin.

I love to fly," says the actor-playwright Ellen McLaughlin. "But I'm also suspicious of my addiction to it."

Coming from the creator of Tongue of a Bird, currently playing at the Public Theater, not to mention the woman who originated the role of the Angel in Tony Kushner's Tony Award-winning epic Angels in America, this love/hate relationship to flight is not particularly surprising. "I love the eye you have, the kind of vision one has in a plane," she continues. "But I don't think it's that healthy to embrace that distance, to be quite so detached from the world."

The play, which follows the emotional collapse of a female search-and-rescue pilot (Cherry Jones) as she tries to look for a kidnapped child while simultaneously coming to terms with her mother's suicide, is filled with a dizzying amount of flight imagery. Indeed, the M.I.A. mother's ghost, played by Sharon Lawrence, floats through the air dressed as Amelia Earhart, complete with silk scarf, goggles, flight cap and leather jacket.

"You'd assume that the idea of the woman flying through the air came as a direct result of my being in Angels," says McLaughlin who spent a lion's share of the run of that play suspended from wires. "And for a while I was convinced as well. But I've been working on and off on this play for more than eight years, and I went back over some notes and discovered that the image predated Angels. So actually it's just a weird coincidence." Although Tongue owes much to McLaughlin's obsession with flying, she admits that there were certainly other influences as well. The most notable was going through a "turning point" in her own life six years ago, approximately the same time that she left San Francisco (where she wowed local audiences in roles like Hedda Gabler) to return to New York City. "I did come to a point where I had to come to terms with who I was, and learn to accept my own true identity," she says. "I've generally avoided writing autobiography, but this one does have more to do with me than most of my other plays. That's probably why it took so long to write."

Many people have noted that McLaughlin's plays, including Days and Nights Within, A Narrow Bed and Iphegenia and Other Daughters, are female-centric, usually centered around strong, independent women characters. Tongue of a Bird, with its cast of five females, is no exception. "Well, I'm a feminist, not surprisingly," she says. "And I think that women are more complex and interesting than they are generally presented in the culture. However, with this play, I didn't set out not to have any male characters. In fact, in a couple of drafts there were a couple of them. But ultimately, I felt like this particular universe just didn't have much to do with men. So they fell by the wayside. But it wasn't a political agenda, it was more of an aesthetic one." Still, McLaughlin can get irked by some chauvinistic attitudes towards the work. "I have had the experience where people come and say, `Where are the guys?'" she says in a dismissive tone. "And that is a bit annoying. I mean after all, nobody goes to Glengarry Glen Ross and says, `Hey, where are the girls?'"

Though the Yale-trained McLaughlin is currently getting a considerable amount of attention as a writer -- Tongue has been presented around the country as have her other plays -- she is not about to give up her acting career. In fact, she recently completed a stint as Pirate Jenny in The Threepenny Opera at Trinity Rep in Providence, Rhode Island. "I love acting," she says. "It's so much more fun than writing. But basically, I think they're good for each other. Acting makes me a better writer and vice versa.

"The only downside," she continues, "is that I know how hard it is. I never have that feeling that I think other playwrights have of sitting in an audience and just being surprised and amazed by what is happening on stage. I'm beyond that. I know the mechanics, so it never seems quite that magical."

Though McLaughlin has usually had to go back and forth between her writer and actor personas, Tongue of a Bird is going to offer her the rare opportunity to wear both hats simultaneously. On April 13-15, McLaughlin will be filling in for Lawrence, playing the part of Evie. That means once again donning a harness and being suspended in the air. Though it has been four years since Angels, McLaughlin's ready for this particular flight. "It's hard on the body," she admits, "but being up in the air like that is exhilarating. I love doing it."

-- Stephen Nunns