There’s something seductive about apocalyptic scenarios, The Birds’ director and PURE founder Sharon Graci said as she stalled curtain call on opening night of playwright Conor McPherson’s The Birds. Why the stall? One of PURE’s season subscribers was caught in traffic. Graci’s delay speaks volumes about what PURE is all about — not just putting on good plays, but making them part of the community. But back to the seduction of near-death experiences and the play we had all gathered in the black box theater to watch.
PURE’s The Birds is nothing like Alfred Hitchcock’s presentation of Daphne de Maurier’s short story. In fact, it’s not even that similar to de Maurier’s work, Graci told us. Don’t expect to see some Tippi Hedren look-alike being attacked by black birds while running for cover. Instead, be prepared for a one-set production that examines what humans will do when placed in a situation so dire that survival is seen more as a matter of days or weeks rather than a life. And definitely be prepared for an engrossing and thought-provoking performance.
To open the play, Diane (Joy Vandervort-Cobb) reads from her journal in a pre-recorded voiceover, and the audience learns how she came to be in the cabin that has been her salvation and how she met the man lying on the floor. Struggling to receive a signal on the radio and hear news about the birds that have taken over the world, Diane sets the desperate scene. The man on the floor is Nat (Laurens Wilson), who is fighting a fever and deliriously yelling out the name of his ex-girlfriend. As Nat’s fever breaks, the awkward “we just met” conversations begin — family life, occupations, etc. The idea of trust is implanted in the audience’s brain. These strangers come together having to rely on one another for survival; they are trusting each other with their lives. Would we trust strangers with our lives in apocalyptic situations? As Diane sweeps the house and tidies dishes, we see an interesting dynamic develop, witnessing that desire for normalcy in the most abnormal situation. The birds could kill Nat or Diane at any minute and life seems far too uncertain to be concerned with the mundane task of removing dirt from the floors.
The play really picks up with the introduction of Julia, played by Haydn Haring. Julia is the young, pretty damsel in distress (major props to the make-up team who made the gash on her head look so realistic) and changes the house dynamic. Julia’s character is tough to figure out — is she lazy, entitled, or just young? Really, she’s all three, expecting special treatment for her looks and using them to her advantage while providing the trio with a dose of fun. At times Haring’s acting is infallible, yet at others it wavers, losing its sincerity. These points are rare and only noticeable because of the steadiness and authenticity of Wilson and Vandervort-Cobb portrayals. Those two managed to make the somewhat unrealistic idea of killer birds feel real.
The only other actor is Jimmy Flannery who plays Tierney, the eccentric farmer across the lake. Flannery used his stage time wisely. On stage for about five minutes, he struck fear in our hearts with his delivery and erratic actions. At times one may have wanted to awkwardly laugh (and a few did) but that could have been the pink, wicker trash can on his head for protection. Tierney’s character creates a sense of the unknown, inspiring a distrust between Diane and her two other housemates that leads to the climax of the play.
The second act is where the real questions about the human condition come full force. What will people do to survive not only physically, but emotionally? As the audience sees it play out, the answer is not pleasant or happy — but it is certainly real.
And what about the birds, the namesake of the play? Though never appearing on stage, they are a character in themselves. Tweets and wing flapping play through the sound system, getting louder and quieter, matching the ebb and flow of the tides, playing on the audience’s emotions. We never see a single bird and the only description we get is when Tierney says the bluebirds killed his dog. It’s yet another twist, as one typically pictures blackbirds or crows as the evil villain of the play.
The production works extremely well in its simplicity. The hodgepodge of the house is what one would expect given the circumstances, the costumes plain and everyday in style, and the lighting effective. To start a new scene the house lights dim to show a passing of time, but without any measurement. The only hints the audience gets about how long the trio have been held captive by the birds is by the change of clothes: shorts for summer, jackets for winter. Sometimes it seems like weeks have passed between dimmings, others seem like mere minutes. In other situations, the lack of timing would be irksome but in this doomsday tale it seems real.
The Birds does not provoke the cowering-in-your-seat type of fear that Hitchcock’s story did. Instead, it’s the more haunting kind — the kind that makes you question humanity, life, and the end of the world. It is, as Graci told us it would be, utterly seductive.