Tongue of a Bird, Gilead Productions, at the Theatre Building. Two playwrights are at war in Ellen McLaughlin. One is so attuned to theatricality that she writes dramatic tours de force. The other forgets that her work will be spoken out loud and produces pretty writing rather than dialogue. These two fight to a draw in the story of Maxine (the superb JoAnn Oliver), a pilot whose search for a missing child turns into a search for her own childhood, her mother, and herself. The result is an evening of brilliant speeches interspersed with meaningless bombast.

Wisely, director Michael Ryczek focuses on the play’s imagery and its potential as an acting showcase, and he has the cast (especially Cecilie Keenan as the mother of the lost child and Vanessa Stalling as the child) and the designers to pull it off. When McLaughlin’s metaphors work, the production strengthens them; when they don’t, it covers for them. Designers Alan Donahue (set), Michael LaTour (sound), and Andrew Meyers (lighting), and costume coordinator Barbara Eulenberg (who also plays Maxine’s grandmother) have done fine, spare work, making possible moments like the one in which Stalling, backlit, hangs from a grid and mimes the struggle of a trapped fly whose wild buzzing becomes more terrified and terrifying. Similarly, Maxine’s mother (Kate Garassino) may spout thoughtless cliches about suicide, but she’s hanging from a harness dressed as Amelia Earhart as she speaks–a madwoman not merely in the attic but the air. With judicious editing, Tongue could be flawless. As it is, it’s still worth seeing. When the words fail, just look at the pictures.

–Kelly Kleiman