Chicago Theatre Review
Raven’s ‘Bird Feeder’ Grade-A Example of Chicago Theater
The Bird Feeder Doesn’t Know – Raven Theatre
When I first began attending plays in earnest here in Chicago, the first thing that struck me was the sheer earnestness of the productions. “Theater,” when I was growing up, automatically meant “Broadway,” which inevitably meant big, grand, even bombastic productions and tiny, little audiences.
That was hardly the case here in Chicago, though, where the venues were small but the audiences large, the casts modest but the emotions and sincerity gargantuan. I was instantly hooked, and knew that I had found a definitive form of expression for the city I loved so – which brings me to “The Bird Feeder Doesn’t Know,” a world-premiere play that serves as a perfect example of the theater aesthetic I just described.
The tale is a simple one. Herman and Ingrid are two aging, loving curmudgeons in Ohio who spend their days bickering, reminiscing about the good old days, and pestering their only child, Everett, an aspiring painter with cerebral palsy. Beyond that seemingly idyllic retirement, though, exist considerable problems: Herman’s pension has been cut in half, and the couple has exhausted their savings keeping up with their expenses; Herman’s memory is failing to the point where he can’t remember how to properly play Yahtzee!; Everett, long frustrated with his mother’s inability to accept him for who he is, spends as little time in the house as possible; and Herman, frustrated with his aging body, angrily insists on doing everything himself – even putting himself in harm’s way, in the process.
All my grandparents are still alive, and many moments of “Bird Feeder” rang so true that I could remember, vividly, moments from my own life that were directly projected on stage. Like when my 78-year-old paternal grandfather, angry that my grandmother would not let him retrieve their fake Christmas tree from the attic, refused to assemble the tree if anyone assisted him; or when my maternal grandfather, in a painstaking pattern of taking one pill at a time, constantly forgot what pills he had taken and when; or when my paternal grandmother, convinced of her own medical moxie, stopped taking her medication entirely. Those are the agonies and ecstasies of age, and playwright Todd Bauer captures those moments so, so well.
And he’s aided immeasurably by an impeccable cast. Led by the brilliant Chuck Spencer (Herman), who was masterful in Raven’s 2014 production of “All My Sons,” the cast also includes Raven ensemble member Joshua J. Volkers and the talented Sheila Sandahl. Timothy Mann’s set design is a marvel, capturing both the aged antiquity of the family house and the aged pride of Herman’s basement workshop. And Jonathan Wilson’s direction keeps the production humming, guiding the actors through Bauer’s precise dialogue.
“Bird Feeder” will not redefine the confines of modern theater, but that’s not the point – what it represents is life on the stage, and that is what makes Chicago theater so profoundly beautiful.
Reviewed by Peter Thomas Ricci
Presented through May 16 by Raven Theatre Company, 6157 N. Clark Street, Chicago, IL 60660
Tickets are available by calling 773-338-2177 or by visiting www.raventheatre.com.
Additional information about this and other spectacular area productions is available at the one, the only, the indefatigable www.theatreinchicago.com.