Today we’re talking about the Dirt Dogs Theatre Co. production of Conor McPherson’s The Birds, and hopefully, no one needs to be told not to expect Tippi Hedren fighting for her life in a California coastal town.
Though McPherson’s The Birds, like Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 film, drew inspiration from Daphne du Maurier's 1952 short story of the same name, the three are far from similar. While McPherson’s play borrows a bit more from du Maurier – the name “Nat,” the countryside setting, the idea of the birds coming in and out with the tides – the true common denominator across all three works is, of course, droves of birds suddenly attacking humans. Crows, seagulls, sparrows, blue jays – all are suddenly, singularly, relentlessly focused on taking out humanity for no discernable reason.
Instead of du Maurier's Cornish farmer or a Hitchcock blond, McPherson’s play begins with two strangers, Nat and Diane, who crossed paths on a road and are sheltering together in a deserted house somewhere in rural New England. Temporarily safe from the birds, we learn through their desperate small talk that both were on their way to try and connect with family. Diane, a writer who is separated from her husband, was heading to see her daughter. Nat was on his way to see his ex and her children, who he says he hasn’t seen in almost a year. That ex, by the way, once had him committed. Though he maintains his ex is the crazy one, he does cop to having crippling headaches and a (maybe implied) history of psychotic breaks.
With nowhere to go, the two slowly settle into a routine, but the equilibrium of their life together is interrupted by the arrival of Julia, a twenty-something nursing a stitch-worthy head wound. Though they take in Julia, Diane is clearly unsettled by her, and her concern is only made worse when their neighbor swings by to proposition Diane, offer her some pills to “make the time go faster,” and warn her that her days with Nat are numbered now that Julia’s on the scene.
McPherson’s 90-minute, intermission-less play is a series of 16 slice-of-dystopian-life scenes, some moving from one day to the next, others from one day to an unknown number of days (or weeks) later. Curtis Barber’s direction is thoughtful and confident, and he’s unafraid to move between restlessness, heightened tension, and small but very present (and very necessary) moments of black humor. Without the deft handling of these tonal shifts, we would lose the depth of the piece, as McPherson is clearly more compelled by the humanity within the walls of this countryside house than the avian apocalypse flapping about outside. The house becomes a microcosm of the breakdown of civilization, something that can be as dangerous and maybe even more sinister than the drunks running wild in a neighboring town, or the roving band of “bad people” Julia previously traveled with.
This fairly grim study of humanity owes a lot to its cast, starting with Jenna Morris. As Diane, Morris is aloof, with a fidgety energy and a tendency to mother (or, maybe more accurately, nag). Opposite Morris, Jeff Featherston’s Nat seems like a good guy, but with Featherston tempering Nat’s vulnerability with a crackling undercurrent of instability, concern looms large for everyone present when the character is on stage. Olivia Knight’s Julia, on the other hand, comes off as honest but secretive, scheming and needy, with a palpable (and unknown) intention behind every word and every action. As Julia, she also perfectly captures the same angry face teenagers everywhere seem to wear with ease.
Early on, we learn that someone is living across the lake, a man with a shotgun who may be watching them. It’s a tease that doesn’t disappoint when we finally meet Tierney, played by Carl Masterson. Though only present for one scene, Masterson is a show-stealer as the drugged up threat that comes to visit.
Another character, if you will, is the sound, designed by Trevor B. Cone. Cone blends a cacophony of squawks, caws and trills – punctuated by the continuous thud of birds hitting the walls of the house – with an eerie soundscape and an ominous rhythm that beats like a heart under several scenes. The sound designs (like the sometimes flashing, sometimes fluid lighting designs by Ian Evans) are particularly effective at cohesively linking scenes together.
Open-concept and homey, it’s easy to see warmth in Santiago Sepeda’s set at first glance, easy to imagine this house being someone’s own little Arcadia. That is, until you notice its emptiness, the boarded-up windows, and the plywood. The décor, along with Malinda L. Beckham’s jean, flannel and thermal costume choices, successfully evoke the play’s rural, New England locale – including, of course, a pheasant, stuffed and mounted on the wall.
The stuffed bird above the fireplace is an ever-present reminder of man’s treatment of nature, just as the very ecological horror of the suddenly bloodthirsty birds can be seen as an environmental warning. It is, however, a fairly cursory nod toward such thoughts. Instead, McPherson finds himself echoing a lesson we learned from Rod Serling more than 60 years ago: With the right mix of existential dread and paranoia, we’re more than capable of finishing the job any alien, bird, or troll farm starts all by ourselves. It’s a salient reminder, and it’s all the powerful when you find it in such a stellar production.
Performances continue at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 7:30 p.m. Thursdays and Monday, October 30; and 2 p.m. Sundays through November 4 at The MATCH, 3400 Main. For more information, visit dirtdogstheatre.org or call 713-521-4533. $30 (with pay-what-you-can tickets available for Sunday matinees and Monday, October 30).