To enter The House Theatre of Chicago’s production of “United Flight 232” — adapter-director Vanessa Stalling’s heart-stopping, all-consuming dramatization of Evanston writer Laurence Gonzales’ meticulous chronicle of an airline disaster — you must walk through a narrow passageway much like those jet bridges that lead from a departure gate into the airtight cocoon of a jumbo jet. And once you take your seat in the all-white space you almost instantly begin to count yourself among the passengers.

‘UNITED FLIGHT 232’
Highly recommended
When: Through May 1
Where: The House Theatre of Chicago at Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division
Tickets: $30 – $35
Info: (773) 769-3832; www.thehousetheatre.com
Run time: 90 minutes, with no intermission

You might also find yourself recalling how statisticians declare (even in this age of terrorism) that the chances of dying in a plane accident are significantly smaller than those of dying in a car. Yet not even the most frequent and confident flyer will deny that the thought of things going very wrong invariably drifts to mind, as you buckle your seat belt, as flight attendants remind you to check for the nearest exit door, or as the massive craft begins to bob and rattle during a period of severe turbulence.

The crew of "United Flight 232" is portrayed by Rudy Galvan (from left), James Doherty and Johnny Arena. (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

The crew of “United Flight 232” is portrayed by Rudy Galvan (from left), James Doherty and Johnny Arena. (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

As it happens, the weather was fine on the afternoon of July 19, 1989, as United Airlines Flight 232 left Denver, Colorado, for Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, where it was to make a stop before heading on to Philadelphia. It was the peak summer season, and the DC-10 was full. There were 296 people on board, including (thanks to a discount promotion), an unusual number of children, some flying alone.

About an hour into the flight there was massive engine failure that sent metal fragments flying. Those fragments penetrated the plane’s hydraulic lines, and the resulting rapid loss of hydraulic fluid made it nearly impossible to navigate the plane. Nearly.

Even when all seemed lost, the extraordinary flight crew — highly skilled, and with many hours of experience and nerves of steel — remained hellbent on trying to land the plane at the Sioux City, Iowa, airport without crashing into a densely populated area in the process.  Meanwhile, an equally determined and heroic group of flight attendants maintained remarkable decorum and calm, as did a number of passengers who engaged in their own acts of heroism and fierce determination.

Although the plane finally slammed into a cornfield and burst into flames, 185 people managed to survive a disaster that easily could have consumed them all. Of course luck (being in the right seat, or making a move at precisely the right moment as the plane broke into five pieces), as well as the invaluable assistance of selfless souls, all played a part in determining who survived and who did not. Some would vow that prayer saved them. Others would say it was their promise to change their priorities if they were allowed to live. Many of the survivors suffered terrible physical injuries, but it was the emotional toll of the crash that, not surprisingly, took the greatest toll.

Brenda Barrie (rear, as senior flight attendant Jan Brown Lohr), with James Doherty (from left), Michael E. Martin, Johnny Arena and Rudy Galvan in "United Flight 232." (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

Brenda Barrie (rear, as senior flight attendant Jan Brown Lohr), with James Doherty (from left), Michael E. Martin, Johnny Arena and Rudy Galvan in “United Flight 232.” (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

The many and varied personal responses of all on board is an essential part of what makes “United Flight 232” so memorable. So are the almost absurdly comic forms of denial, as when food and beverage service continues for a while. The many forms of denial are on full display. So is the chanting of invaluable if mundane-sounding instructions (“Brace, brace, brace”). All this combines to make some of the most intense 90 minutes of theater in recent memory.

While “United Flight 232” is a tale of true horror, it is far from the traditional “disaster movie,” even if Stalling’s storytelling has a terrific cinematic quality. Employing self-narration, body movement and the simple but clever use of chairs, her nine superb actors — including Brenda Barrie, Echaka Agba, Alice da Cunha, Elana Eylce, Rudy Galvan, James Doherty, Johnny Arena, Kroydell Galima and Michael E. Martin — make the stage vibrate with tension and disorientation, and create a sense of the full passenger list. And John Musial’s space-transforming set — hauntingly lit by William C. Kirkham, with vista-shifting projections by Paul Dezial, and sound by Steve Labadz — creates the perfect environment.

Best of all, the disaster is matched by a spiritual awakening. For all the death, what remains of Flight 232 is a heightened sense of being alive.