Challenged Memory

‘United,’ celebrates the lives lost on United Airlines Flight 93 on Sept. 11, 2001

We will never forget that day. Sept. 11, 2001.

We have stumbled, floated and trudged through more than a decade since that day of horror. We recall many particulars, some of them rather curious. We remember that when we learned that United Airlines Flight 93 had taken an inglorious nosedive into an isolated field in Pennsylvania, and that that nosedive had actually been orchestrated by the 40 passengers onboard, we were amazed at the clarity and resolve of those ordinary folks. Having concluded that the plane which had been seized by Islamist extremists who were intending to use the plane, and hence its unwilling passengers, as a weapon of mass destruction, they coalesced and acted to take the plane down before its hijackers could hit their mark, killing more countrymen and perhaps destroying the defining symbol of U.S. democracy.

Tucson playwright Toni Press-Coffman was affected in a profound way, as were many of us. But as an artist, she has access to skills with which she was determined to memorialize uniquely that day, and in particular Flight 93. Now, Winding Road Theater Ensemble, of which Press-Coffman is a founding member, brings us "United," a play which has taken 10 years to develop, to honor the folks who, in the moment of their knowledge of their own loss, did indeed unite to overcome the hijackers and steer the plane to prevent greater loss.

Press-Coffman has stated that she wanted to recognize each person on that flight. To do that she wanted us to get to know each one. That's a huge task to undertake in a relatively brief play. To accomplish this Press-Coffman uses a convention which places our focus on Mariah Mills (Lucille Petty), a young woman, adopted at birth, who has a strong feeling that one of her birth parents was on that flight. She becomes obsessed with finding out as much about each of the passengers and flight crew as she could, and she tells her story by directing our attention to short vignettes intended to introduce us to each of those onboard.

There is a large cast, with each actor playing a number of roles, and some actors demonstrate greater skills than others. We do get sketchy ideas about who these people were and how they handled themselves during their last moments. But I wonder if this makes the best theater, and if, indeed, such a few moments of focus on individuals, which has the effect of a faded photo or two, really bestows the recognition the playwright intended. It's honorable that she wants to humanize these folks to us, but does that happen to the extent needed, dramatically speaking?

The production values are high, which is always good to see. The visual effect is of a cutaway through the fuselage of a plane, complete with rows of seats which can be shifted (and are quite frequently, and although smoothly executed, dangerously approach making the play about scenery shifts.) So one has to wonder if the balance of heart to delivery system is a bit off. Great thought was given to musical accompaniment, which was accomplished by Rose Todaro beautifully on viola.

The act of memorializing in this manner presents numerous challenges. One is that we, due to our human nature, are very curious about stories like this, ones that explore how we react in the midst of inevitable destruction, and thus there is within us a kind of voyeurism as our fellows knowingly race to disaster. So any depiction of the event demands great respect. Of course there are many ways of interpreting respect, but we do feel that Press-Coffman and the production team have approached telling this story with befitting sensitivity (and not without humor). The focus is on the people and not on the drama of the disastrous final minutes.

Another challenge is that it may be hard to step away from the memorializing itself to reflect on what works theatrically and what may not. It's difficult to critique—from the inside and from out—an effort to honor a celebrated event, a near iconic moment in our recent history. The need to do so is, however, there, and an acute awareness must guide being true to the point of the play, and the play true to the demands of effective playmaking.

"United" is directed tautly enough (by Erin Merritt) that we are never disinterested, and that we do get an idea, though slight, of who this small group of people was. And though there might be questions about choices made along the way, the result is that we are left not with feeling so much a sense of loss as a celebration of the power of the union of ordinary individuals in extraordinary times.