Chicago Theatre Review
Fine Feathered Fiends
The Birds – Citadel Theatre
Neither Alfred Hitchcock’s cinematic masterpiece of horror, nor the short story by Daphne du Maurier, playwright Connor McPherson’s 95-minute drama actually only retains the title, the name of the story’s main character and the same catastrophic event that’s 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 with the outside world, McPherson’s relentless play focuses on the evolving relationship between the 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 a series of blackouts, some diary voiceovers by Diane and, of course, the ever-present squawking of the birds. Tension builds as the couple observe 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 trying to balance on a pair of high heels that she found in the house. The girl has apparently arrived at the cabin from somewhere between the previous scenes. Julia is disheveled, understandably frightened and sports a facial wound, which Diane helps clean and bind. It’s at this point that the relationships slowly begin to shift, proving again that two’s company and three’s a crowd.
At first the refugees form a kind of family unit, with Nat and Diane as parental figures and Julia in the role of a
daughter. Gradually, however, Julia and Nat develop a secret sexual attraction. 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, hairy drunken stranger with a rifle, bursts into the cottage, terrifying Diane and planting seeds of doubt and suspicion in her mind.
Conor McPherson’s 90-minute one-act feels like a spin on 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 shift conflict emerges. 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 humans. 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 effects. McPherson’s play could’ve been set after a nuclear war, an alien invasion or even during a zombie apocalypse.
Scott Phelps’ production, however, moves along but doesn’t really build enough to create the necessary terror. This is primarily the fault of the script. The show begins to create suspense, but after a while the characters seem to simply meander from scene to scene. When the tension disappears the characters just seem to float from day to day. Only when a snarling survivor named Tierney unexpectedly arrives at the cabin to confront Diane does the play actually become frightening. Played with an animal-like, crazed desperation by Errol McLendon, 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 drama. Kristie Berger plays Diane with likability, maturity and blunt 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. Berger brings to the role that makes her Diane someone with whom the audience can relate.
John Gray does a fine job as Nat but, like Joseph Garcin in Sartre’s play, he ultimately turns into 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. Gray has a more difficult task than it appears. Nat must be both the macho protector and hunter/gatherer for this makeshift family, while trying to tame his own inner demons. And Abby Dillion has a thin line to walk as Julia. She must relate to everyone in the play in different ways. Ms. Dillion gives Julia the allure necessary to attract the men, while still creating a needy surrogate daughter for Diane. She’s not simply Lolita nor a villain; she’s a realistic young woman using what she has at her disposal to survive. It’s a difficult tightrope to walk and Ms. Dillion does her best with it.
A great deal of credit for the success of this production goes to the technical team. Bob Boxer’s electrifying sound design audibly creates the unseen feathered intruders, while providing other realistic sound effects, from a scratchy radio broadcast to a calming cassette of taped piano music. Jake Ives’ realistic cottage set looks authentic and inhabitable. His rustic lake house, complete with boarded up windows and entryway, is believably claustrophobic. Kyle Techentin’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 2009 one-act that, despite its avian title, is really a story about man’s inhumanity to man. Citadel Theatre Company’s production, while interesting and thought-provoking, never fully achieves the mounting terror or sense of defenselessness found in the film. Like both Alfred Hitchcock’s classic horror film and the short story that inspired it, the dilemma is never resolved. The play remains one more look at how individuals react under adverse conditions and how alliances develop for the sheer purpose of survival.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented September 30-October 30 by Citadel Theatre, 300 S. Waukegan Rd., Lake Forest, IL.
Tickets are available by calling 847-735-8554, ext. 1, or by going to www.CitadelTheatre.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.