Visceral piece showcases how ordinary people take care of one another in extraordinary times

One in a billion — or virtually impossible.

Those were the odds that a piece of metal in the rear engine would fail mid-flight and sever the main hydraulics and two backup systems to leave Flight 232 veering out of control. The event was unconceivable to both those in the air, and those on the ground, as the crew frantically struggled for control.

We’ll never know the odds against Captain Al Haynes, who acting on instinct rather than training and banked the plane left to save it from a fatal mid-air roll in the first wild seconds.

And the numbers will never reveal the human drama that unfolded that fateful day in July of 1989 as the crew struggled to regain control and ultimately tried to land the floundering plane in Sioux City, Iowa. “United Flight 232” recounts the true story of a DC-10 that left Denver’s Stapleton Airport, bound for Chicago O’Hare with 296 people on board. Despite the crew’s fierce efforts, the doomed flight ended in a fireball with the plane cracked into pieces and scattered across the runway and adjacent.

One-hundred-and-twelve wouldn’t survive.

The play is adapted and originally directed by Vanessa Stalling from the book, “Flight 232,” by Laurence Gonzales. Based on a tragedy that strikes close to home for many Coloradans, “United Flight 232” centers around the resiliency, self-sacrifice and true meaning of humanity as it thoughtfully and respectfully recounts the slowly dawning reactions and resulting actions of the crew, passengers and ground personnel. The play debuted in Chicago, and several survivors attended opening night. Local survivors have also attended the Boulder production and are welcomed by director Amanda Berg Wilson, co-founder and artistic director of The Catamounts theater company.

The Catamounts cast deftly brings that day to life on the austere, darkened stage at The Carsen Theatre at the Dairy Arts Center in Boulder. Nine actors, identically dressed in a basic uniform, use only nine simple metal chairs as props to portray 21 people involved in the flight. Light and movement are skillfully used to bring the audience members, who are within feet of the actors, directly into the cabin. The intimate setting allows the actors to unveil their characters and their growing comprehension as it becomes obvious that the flight is in true danger.

Blue skies

Throughout the production, many of the survivors recount that it was a beautiful day with blue skies. Even after the crash it is a memory that will haunt them — and sustain them even as they fight growing panic and fear on that sunny day.

The cockpit crew, played adroitly by Austin Terrell, Jason Maxwell and Archie Archuleta, are so focused on controlling the plane that their sense of authority and calm almost belie the seriousness of the situation. Initially they reassure the passengers that they still have two good engines and will be landing later than planned. But they quickly realize the extent of the damage and that they can’t regain control.

As we hear Captain Haynes (Terrell) tell air traffic control: “I have very serious doubts about making the airport. Do you have some place near there that we might be able to ditch it?”, the pace in the cabin also begins to pick up.

Karen LaMoureaux, as dedicated head attendant Jan Brown who took her responsibilities to heart, radiates strength and credibility as she reveals that the plane will crash-land to her crew. Fellow attendants Susan White and Jan Murray (Tresha Farris and Maggie Tisdale), also do an admirable job of portraying the grace of the crew who heavily rely on their training to calm the passengers while privately dealing with their own fears.

Brown, who survives, later becomes an advocate for changing how “lap children” are handled on flights after realizing how endangered these children are during a crash landing.

Spirit of survival

As passengers regret life decisions, cling to disbelief and comfort each other, the best in human nobility and sacrifice is clearly shown — letting us walk away reveling in the spirit of survival rather than reflecting on the specter of death.

Adrienne Martin-Fullwood plays two strong but distinct roles as a married mother who bargains with God to live and become a better mother and wife, and a Vietnam veteran who has already been through hell and teams with a stranger to save others despite life-threatening smoke and flames.

Young Yisroel Brownstein (Archuleta), traveling on his own, teaches a prayer he learned from his father to his seatmate, who will later cover the boy with his own body and save his life.

Passenger Paul Olivier (Josh Robinson) comforts the 16-year-old traveling by herself who sits next to him, and together they develop a plan to escape. He finds out three weeks later that she dies after their ambulance ride together to the hospital.

It’s these moments that linger when the lights are turned up and you realize that it isn’t blue sky beckoning, but a darkened theater ceiling hovering above.