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On the wing with ‘One Came Home’ at Lifeline Theatre

Both the birds and the young women of the town of Placid, Wisconsin, seem to have been in a state of profound upheaval in 1871.

In the skies (and this is well-annotated history), passenger pigeons, once the most abundant bird in North America, were suffering a catastrophic decline as a result of ever-greater settlement, widespread deforestation, and hunting done on a massive scale.

As for the women, we will have to take the word of novelist Amy Timberlake, whose young adult novel, “One Came Home” (a 2013 Newbery Honor Book), has been adapted for the stage by Jessica Wright Buha and is now receiving its world premiere by Lifeline Theatre.

‘ONE CAME HOME’

Recommended

When: Through April 5

Where: Lifeline Theater, 6912 N. Glenwood

Tickets: $40

Info: (773) 761-4477; lifelinetheatre.com

Run time: 2 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission

The Lifeline production — under the inventive direction of Elise Kauzlaric, and with Alan Donahue’s set of lacy foliage to set the mood — homes in on the choices made by the Burkhardt sisters of small-town Wisconsin. Georgie (Ashley Darger) is a feisty, stubborn girl in early adolescence who happens to be a standout marksman.

Georgie’s older sister, Agatha (the elegant and enigmatic Amanda Jane Long) is more romantic and glamorous. And she is being pursued by two quite different men — Billy (Jeff Kurysz, effortlessly charming and fully of boyish grace), a good-looking young man about to become a homesteader in Minnesota, and Mr. Olmstead (ideally played by Dan Granata), a somewhat older man who runs the local hotel and shares her passion for birds and books. Yet all this only camouflages Agatha’s ferocious determination to study ornithology and literature at the University of Wisconsin at a time when very few women headed off to such schools.

Jeff Kurysz is Billy and Ashley Darger is Georgie in "One Came Home" at Lifeline Theatre. (Photo: Suzanne Plunkett)

Jeff Kurysz is Billy and Ashley Darger is Georgie in “One Came Home” at Lifeline Theatre. 

When Agatha suddenly disappears, and the remains of a young woman dressed in the turquoise satin of her favorite gown are found in the woods, Georgie is inconsolable. Riddled with guilt, despair and disbelief, she sets out on mule-back to discover the truth about her sister’s mysterious disappearance, with the more measured, heartbroken and winningly engaging Billy as her companion/guardian on horseback.

Along the way, Georgie repeatedly demonstrates her fearlessness and willful determination, while also starting to wake up to the opposite sex and the very real meaning of death. Darger is physically fleet and intense as she taps into her character’s stubbornness and determination, but this intensity can grow irritating after a while, to the point where the play’s over-emphatic proto-feminist streak begins to wear you down. (The show also could benefit from a clearer initial description of the passenger pigeon issues of the time.)

Yet there is much to admire in this production, from the playful use of two A-frame folding ladders to the supporting turns by Errol McLendon as the Burkhardt girls’ grandfather; Miriam Reuter as Polly, who is determined to become Billy’s wife; and Heather Currie as both a solid mama and an outlaw’s wife. The noisy flight of paper pigeons, along with the hymns and original music by John Szymanski, also help bring the story home.