When looking for meaning, be ready for nothing

By Kevin Zimmerman

A horrific plane crash, which serves as the catalyst in Kari Bentley-Quinn’s new play, “The Unlikely Ascent of Sybil Stevens,” happens before the stage lights go up at The Secret Theatre.

Actor Sean Williams portrays Joe, an EMS, who was one of the first people to arrive at the crash site. He describes the sickening scene to the audience then talks about discovering the sole survivor, Sybil. Somehow during the drink service, when the plane exploded and broke into two over the Wyoming wilderness, the beverage cart pinned Sybil to the back of the cabin and saved her life.

“If that’s not someone trying to tell us something,” Joe says, “I don’t know what is.”

Williams does a fairly good job of creating a man who is unhappy with everything in his life and is desperate for any sign that tells him it’s all right to leave his current situation.

But then those signs that fell from the sky might not mean a thing.

To co-opt an overused phrase, stuff happens.

And Bentley-Quinn seems interested in exploring the notion that just because something extraordinary happens to someone that doesn’t necessarily make them extraordinary. Too many people attempt to find meaning in everything that occurs in their lives and in every interaction they have with others, and Bentley-Quinn suggests sometimes, well, sometimes stuff just happens.

Joe contemplates leaving his wife and children and moving to Chicago to be with Sybil. He believes everything in his life was leading up to the day of the crash and his finding Sybil among the charred bodies and broken machinery.

“Nothing works,” he tells Sybil on a visit to her home about one year after the incident. “Nothing works except the day I found you.”

Sybil, however, sees the events of that day a little more clearly.

“I think my plane blew up on accident,” she tells Joe.

Bentley-Quinn’s piece works best when she is looking at the aftermath of Sybil’s ordeal and the hysteria that swells up around her survival. People except remarkable things from this woman who, as one character states, “survived the unsurvivable.”

Sybil is flawed, just like the rest of us, and these character defects are exposed on national TV as part of a gotcha interview on a celebrity talk show.

The play falters a bit when Bentley-Quinn spends a little too much time looking at the loss of privacy that our online existence of Facebook updates and Twitter feeds have developed into. It’s not new to suggest technology has rendered the minutia of life fodder for the web.

But it’s Jennifer Gordon Thomas as Sybil, a woman in constant physical pain and now emotional turmoil, who does an amazing job of holding our attention and earning our sympathy. Thomas has fleshed out a fully realized character, complete with a Midwestern drawl. This is a woman who just wants to drink a couple of beers while watching her beloved Cubs lose yet again.

Thomas knows Sybil is not an angel and she plays her for what she is — a real, but flawed woman.

Yeauxlanda Kay as the Oprah-like Tessa MacKenzie makes the most of her small, but pivotal role as the person who attempts to knock Sybil off her pedestal, even though this survivor would agree she has no business up there in the first place.

As Sybil’s nephew Derek, Jordan Tierney captures the sense of a 20-something lost soul, who believes his future lies in promoting his aunt’s unbelievable tale — a pursuit he drops when he understands what the real story is. “Yes, she’s amazing,” he tells Joe, “but she’s also just a person.”

A person who knows things sometimes happen for no apparent reason.

If You Go

“The Unlikely Ascent of Sybil Stevens”

When: Through Feb. 23

Where: The Secret Theatre, 44-02 23rd St., Long Island City

Cost: $18

Contact: (718) 392-0722

Website: www.secrettheatre.com

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