GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado - Director Sue Lavin says, "I like plays that have to do with adventure and personal exploration."
On both counts, Lavin finds a meaty play in Colorado Mountain College Theatre's next production, "Tongue of a Bird," written by Ellen McLaughlin. The playwright is also an actress well-known for her stage role in Tony Kushner's "Angels in America."
"It's very theatrical, unique, poetic and surprising," says Lavin who has directed about 60 plays in her lifetime.
"Tongue of a Bird" is a five-woman show that centers on Maxine (played by Cassidy Willey), a pilot summoned back to her native mountain home to search for a lost child. Her mission inspires an emotional and intense inward search for the mother she herself lost long ago.
Playing Maxine is a graduation of sorts for Willey, who did graduate last year with a theater degree from CMC. "In so many ways it's challenging," she says of her role. "I never leave the stage. It's a lot of work, but it really helps to listen, listen, listen to the other actors."
Maxine's quest is underpinned by the missing child (played by CMC student Robin Parent) and the child's distraught mother (China Kwan), as well as Maxine's grandmother Zofia (Chip Winn Wells) and her mother Evie's apparition (CMC theater student Jaime Sklavos).
Willey's character Maxine is confronted by a seemingly impossible task. On the physical side, she searches for a missing girl in the dead of winter, in challenging mountainous terrain; on the psychological side, she tries to find answers about the mother she lost. Her approach to both is, as Lavin describes, "relentless."
This idea of a relentless search is a theme the playwright borrows from the Greek classics where the heroes persist, despite pressure to turn back. It is also a familiar theme, Lavin says, in coming-of-age stories popular in American culture, many involving young boys reaching adulthood.
"But here," Lavin says of this story, "is a young, accomplished woman who's still unsettled. She's trying to grow up, trying to reach a greater satisfaction with her life."
Willey's route to CMC and its theater program was somewhat nontraditional. She first earned her four-year degree from the University of Colorado at Boulder, followed by her associate degree in theater from CMC. "CMC wasn't part of the plan," she says, but she was intrigued by how the theater program was blossoming when she returned to her hometown of Glenwood Springs. "I wanted to pursue my passion. It was as simple as that."
Willey was involved in all of last year's productions, with major roles in "I Hate Hamlet," "Dangerous Liaisons" and "The Rocky Horror Show" and behind-the-scenes roles in set design. "I don't think there's any way I could have had the same level of involvement at CU," she says.
"The students really are running the show," she says. "The stage managers are students, the students help build the sets. Running the sound and the lights - that's all students."
Lavin says CMC Theatre "is a source of pride for this community." She says the students and the program both have grown because of the support in the community. "You will see the growth of students in this play. They would not have been able to grow the way they have without this support."