There was a time when air travel was considered glamorous, but then, there was a time when baseball fans wore suits and hats to Wrigley Field (the past truly is a foreign country). The three veteran flight attendants at the center of Marisa Wegrzyn’s Mud Blue Sky, now onstage at A Red Orchid Theatre, bear little resemblance to the Pan Am stewardesses of the old days, with their fashionable uniforms and youthful air of freedom and adventure. Wegrzyn’s characters are lower-middle-class grunts at the mercy of cash-strapped airlines and rude passengers who leave unspeakable messes in the lavatory. Whereas the job may have once provided fresh opportunities for women—as long as they fit a certain mold—this play’s trio seem convinced they’re headed nowhere.
It’s fitting, then, that the 90-minute comedy unfolds in a placeless sort of place: a functional, characterless hotel that’s been designed to meet a baseline standard of comfort and convenience and go not a jot further. It’s set near O’Hare but really could be anywhere. The numbing blandness of the place is perfectly realized in Jacqueline Penrod’s set—a typical guest room decorated with muted colors and anodyne artwork—and Mike Durst’s flat, unflattering lighting design.
The room belongs for the night to Beth (Natalie West), a longtime flight-crew member with a bad back and a gruff demeanor, particularly when it comes to dealing with her coarse, fun-loving coworker Sam (Mierka Girten), who’s staying down the hall. Sam has plans to hang out with Angie (Kirsten Fitzgerald), a former colleague recently fired for being too overweight to fulfill her duties. Beth is invited to join them but she begs off in order, she says, to get some sleep.
Instead, she invites over her Chicago-area pot dealer, a teenager named Jonathan (a sensitive Matt Farabee), who shows up wearing a tuxedo because it’s his prom night. When Sam and Angie return unexpectedly, what starts out as a somewhat farcical situation—middle-aged Beth caught in a hotel room with a 17-year-old boy—deepens into a surprisingly poignant group portrait of four lonely people.
Wegrzyn deftly blends comedy and despair as the characters attempt to cut loose—pot, porn, and cognac are involved—and forget that each of them is staring down a future that’s either uncertain, uninspiring, or both. We learn that Angie is stuck tending to her elderly mother, that Sam has an adolescent son who despises her, that Jonathan can’t decide whether to go to college, and that Beth is mulling over early retirement since she figures she’ll be laid off soon anyway.
Under the direction of Shade Murray, West, Girten, and Fitzgerald convey forced high spirits barely masking the sadness below the surface. Each performer both captures and subtly undermines her character’s stock response to disappointment, whether it’s prickliness (Beth), party-girl antics (Sam), or solicitous bonhomie (Angie). Though it initially seems implausible that these three would choose to spend time together, it eventually becomes clear that after so many years on the road, they’ve come to prefer any company to being alone in yet another drab hotel room.
Toward the end, Wegryzn synthesizes her themes of loneliness and loss in a long monologue during which Angie recounts an unsettling encounter with a passenger—an old woman who asked her over for Christmas dinner. Turns out the woman had a terminally ill husband and didn’t want to be alone when she gave him a fatal dose of morphine to put him out of his misery. Angie is haunted by the experience, doubting whether she behaved properly or whether her presence added anything at all. But Beth consoles her, saying, “You were the person who was there.” Ultimately, the play is a funny and forgiving argument in favor of making human connections, however brief or tenuous.