United Flight 232 from Stapleton Airport was set to land at Chicago O’Hare International Airport on July 19, 1989, but it never made it. Instead, halfway through the flight, the second engine exploded and the DC-10 plane crash-landed in Sioux City, Iowa, killing 111 of the 269 passengers. Thirty years later, the Catamounts, a Boulder-based theater company, is recounting what happened that tragic day in United Flight 232, a one-act play that begins February 16 at the Carsen Theater in the Dairy Arts Center.
The play was originally performed by The House Theatre of Chicago in 2016 and is based on a book by Laurence Gonzales titled Flight 232: A Story of Disaster and Survival, which outlines step-by-step how the pilots tried to operate a control-less plane and what exactly caused the engine to fail. Freelance theater director Vanessa Stalling, who is based in San Diego and Chicago, worked with Gonzales on an adaptation of the book.
The Catamounts artistic director, Amanda Berg Wilson, came across the piece shortly after its debut in Chicago and reached out to Stalling about performing it in Boulder.
“This is a story about something that impacted this part of the country,” Berg Wilson says. “It turns out that we have many survivors of the plane crash who lived in the Denver-Boulder area.”
Using only chairs and no other props, the play utilizes movement to explain what happened during the 40 minutes after the engine exploded. Nine actors are casted to portray 20 different survivors, highlighting their acts of bravery, quick-thinking, and selflessness that helped save other people.
Berg Wilson, who is directing Flight 232, prefers inventive, non-realistic ways to tell stories. “There are no costume changes,” Berg Wilson says. “The actors kind of spend the whole play on stage coming in and out of the audience.”
Berg Wilson hopes the play will show that the people who died and lived through this event were just ordinary people, like those sitting in the audience. “It feels important to me to continue to drive that point home—that should any of us ever find ourselves in that kind of catastrophic situation, that we all have within us the resiliency and selflessness to do [what] we can to save other people, including ourselves.” However, because the actors are playing one to four different characters, they will regularly remind the audience who they are and what seat they are in.
To clarify what exactly happened to the plane to cause the crash, the actors playing the pilots will explain what happened mechanically. “There’s a whole section where we step outside of the the memory of those 40 minutes,” Berg Wilson says. “This crash had a one in a billion chance of happening. It was such a freak thing that happened.”
Berg Wilson expects some of the crash survivors and family members of those who died to be in attendance and hopes that the references will pay tribute to them. “I think the piece did a really nice job of recognizing that there are parts of the play that talk about people who died and the survivor guilt that some of the survivors had as a result,” she says. “A lot of the survivors attended it in Chicago and found it to be quite healing. So my hope is that that will be the case.”
Although the play is about the crash from the perspective of the passengers, Berg Wilson hopes the audience will take away important life lessons about bravery. “It felt to me like it was a really important reminder right now because the piece really is about how ordinary people, in moments of extraordinary crisis, come to one another’s aid,” she says. “While there’s capacity to do great ill, there’s also capacity to be quite selfless.”