Chicago Theatre Review
Fine Feathered Fiends
The Birds – Griffin Theatre
Neither Alfred Hitchcock’s horror cinematic masterpiece nor the short story by Daphne du Maurier, Connor McPherson’s 95-minute play retains only the title, the name of the story’s main character and the same catastrophic event found in both. Somewhere in New England, in a rural area near the ocean, two people are holed up in a cabin by a lake. Outside the birds’ loud screeching, pecking at the boarded up windows and doors and battering of wings constantly remind Nat and Diane that they’re being held prisoners inside this deserted cottage. Without any contact to the outside world, McPherson’s relentless play focuses on the changing relationship between three strangers. As their roles emerge, with Diane as the caregiver and homemaker, Nat as the protector and provider, these two develop a supportive relationship in order to survive. Then a new survivor arrives.
McPherson depicts the passing of days and weeks through blackouts, some diary voiceovers by Diane and the ever-present sounds of the birds. Tension builds as the couple believe they’ve observed a gun-toting man secretly watching them from across the lake. Then suddenly, without any warning, there appears a new arrival. Julia, a younger woman, is discovered on the stairway, trying to balance on a pair of high heels she’s found in the house. She’s apparently arrived at the cabin between the observed scenes. Julia is dirty, understandably frightened and sports a facial wound, which Diane helps clean and bind. Now the relationships slowly begin to shift. At first the refugees form a kind of family unit, with Nat and Diane as parent figures and Julia in a kind of daughter role. Gradually, however, Julia and Nat develop a secret sexual attraction to each other. Then, to complicate matters even further, after Diane’s been left alone one day while the other two are out foraging for food, another stranger arrives. Tierney, a scary, drunken stranger with a rifle, bursts into the cottage, terrifying Diane. He eventually leaves, but not before frightening Diane and planting seeds of doubt and suspicion in her mind.
Conor McPherson’s long one-act feels like a new version of John-Paul Sartre’s similarly themed, existentialist drama, “No Exit.” In both plays three people are locked together in a small room for what might be eternity. At first they act civilized toward each other; but as the dynamics begin to change the conflict begins. We’re reminded once more that “hell is other people.” It’s not the birds, which we only hear but never actually see, that are responsible for the play’s fear and terror. It’s the people. In many ways, the feathered fiend forays simply serve as the catalyst for the psychological drama. Audiences attending this production will be disappointed if they’re expecting actual aviary attacks and gory special effect. McPherson’s play could’ve been set after a nuclear war, an alien invasion or even during a zombie apocalypse.
Kevin Kingston’s production, however, doesn’t really build enough to create the necessary terror. The show begins to create suspense, but after a while the characters seem to simply meander from scene to scene. When the build disappears the characters just float from day to day. Only when a snarling survivor named Tierney unexpectedly arrives at the cabin to confront Diane does the play actually turn frightening. Played with a crazed, animal-like desperation by David Krajecki, the audience is never quite sure who this man is or where the scene is heading. That fear of the unknown is missing from much of this production. Jodi Kingsley plays Diane with true likability, maturity and real honesty. Her half smiles and determination to remain calm, when everything around her is falling apart, is both the strength of her performance and this production. There’s also a wonderful maternal quality that Ms. Kingsley brings to her role that makes Diane a heroine to whom everyone can relate.
Keith Neagle does a fine job as Nat but, like Joseph Garcin in Sartre’s play, he ultimately becomes a pawn for his two female roommates. Playing an insecure character haunted by his own past, while trying to survive against the unthinkable circumstances around him, Mr. Neagle has a more difficult task than it would appear. Nat must be both the macho protector and hunter/gatherer for this makeshift family, while trying to tame his own inner demons. Emily Nichelson has a thin line to walk as Julia. She must relate to everyone in the play in different ways. Ms. Nichelson gives Julia the allure necessary to attract the men, while still being a needy surrogate daughter for Diane. She can’t be simply a Lolita or the villain; she’s got to seem real. It’s a difficult tightrope to walk and Ms. Nichelson does her best with it, although her success varies with each scene.
A great deal of credit for the success of this production goes to its technical team. Stephen Ptacek’s electrifying sound design audibly creates the titular, unseen feathered intruders, while providing other realistic sound effects, from a scratchy radio news broadcast to a calming cassette of taped piano music. Greg Pisoneault’s realistic scenic design looks positively livable. His rustic lake house, complete with boarded up windows and entryway, is authentic and believably claustrophobic. Eric Vigo’s atmospheric lighting is particularly effective during the bird attacks and creates the necessary suspenseful alternating shadows and bursts of light.
Irish playwright Conor McPherson, known for such psychological thrillers as “The Weir” and “Shining City,” freely adapted Daphne du Maurier’s short story into this one-act play that, despite its avian title, is really a story about man’s inhumanity to man. Griffin Theatre Company’s production, while interesting, thought-provoking and features fine acting, never really achieves a mounting terror or sense of defenselessness. Like both Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film and the short story that inspired it, the dilemma is never resolved, but the story stands as an examination of how people react under adverse conditions and how alliances develop for the purpose of survival.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented June 6-July 19 by Griffin Theatre Company at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont, Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 773-975-8150 or by going to www.theaterwit.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.