We don’t really think about the little room. We’re glad someone has taken responsibility for the safety of the aircraft and its passengers, but the little room is a mystery. What are its occupants really up against? What really happens in the cockpit when the unspeakable happens? Charlie Victor Romeo is a verbatim theater piece based on voice transmissions six real-life airplane emergencies. The verbatim, or “docudrama” style delivers on emotional impact. But to use people’s moments of panic, desperation, and even death? Does that cross a line?
Fortunately, no one on CVR’s team seems at all willing to exploit the material, and the resulting production veers toward the poignant on more than one occasion. Details not readily apparent from the transmissions alone are provided in the program, and a slide listing the flight numbers, incident locations, crew/passenger counts, and causes is flashed above the set prior to each scene. At scene’s end, another lists the casualties.
Equipment failure is the major culprit, save for acts of nature and one particularly horrifying instance of human error. It’s a perverse feeling of dramatic irony, watching these scenes. Incidents play out in mostly-uncut real-time onstage, but of course these disasters have already happened. Our knuckles whiten in hopes of an intervening force, but no author or director can make a bit of difference. One would think that the post-mishap shambles would be the thing to make an audience squirm. Not so—it’s waiting for the inevitable that’s tense as hell.
Suffice it to say that, as a production, CVR does what it intends to do. James Mereness’ sound design is a standout, and the actors’ performances are uniformly committed. Patrick Daniels, Noel Dinneen, Mick O’Brien, Chris Orbach, Josh Rubin, Deb Troche, and Nora Woolley do what they can with the limited physical space and range they have in Bill Ballou and Cecile Boucher’s cramped cockpit set.
The seven actors rotate as captains, first officers, engineers, ground support, etc. CVR, as presented, is a study in the psychology of crisis. One expects to see the crew devolve into sheer, maddening panic. And panic they do, but in brief flashes as they try, try, try to fix the problem. It’s pure survivalism, only these basic instincts come in the form of manuals and mechanical checklists. When all else fails (and it frequently does), they go back to the basics. They do their jobs, and we brainstorm with them. What else can be done? What would I have done?
But my answers to those questions are irrelevant, because as someone who is not a trained pilot, I will likely never be on that side of the situation. I was along for this ride, a ride made all the more nauseating by my own acute fear of flying. I suspect that the same is true for many viewers. Aerophobia and a fear of the lack of control often go hand-in-hand, anxieties exacerbated by flying in a post-9/11 world. I don’t think about the people in the cockpit on the rare occasion that I do fly, though not out of disrespect.
Logically, I know that there’s no way someone would be let near the controls of a working aircraft unless they had been proven competent. But in the presence of other anxieties, pretending the crew and craft are fused together as one infallible machine is something I need to do. The real message of Charlie Victor Romeo is somewhere in there, I think. It’s not to clear the air about what causes airplane emergencies, or, frankly, even to act as a memorial. It’s just to open the door, because there’s a whole other story on the other side.