BWW Review: BIRDY: Timeless Story of War and Friendship Achieves Liftoff at CommShakes
Adapted by Naomi Wallace from the novel by William Wharton, Directed by Steven Maler, Produced by Spring Sirkin; Clint Ramos, Scenic and Costume Design; Jeffrey Petersen, Associate Scenic Designer; Jeff Adelberg, Lighting Design; J Hagenbuckle, Sound Design; Sally Tomasetti, Props Artisan; Jenna Worden, Stage Manager; Rachel Corning, Assistant Stage Manager; Kristen Mazzocchi, Production Manager; Julia Deter, Assistant Director; Stephanie Klapper, Casting Director; Martha Mason, Movement Consultant; Nile Hawver, Fight Consultant
Performances through March 17 by Commonwealth Shakespeare Company in residence at Babson College, Carling-Sorenson Theater, 231 Forest Street, Wellesley, MA; Box Office 781-239-5880 or www.commshakes.org
Pigeon keepers are an interesting and unique, albeit diminishing, subset of humans, and within that group is a subset, presumably small, of people who identify with the birds. Taking it one step further, Birdy, the protagonist in Naomi Wallace's adaptation of William Wharton's novel Birdy, identifies, not with, but as a bird. Strange as it sounds, it may be the most sane response to an insane world in this drama that toggles back and forth between a pre-World War II Philadelphia suburb and an Army hospital in post-war Kentucky. It is a war story that plays out on the battlefield of an intense, intimate friendship, where the psychological wounds are more damaging and enduring than the physical ones.
Commonwealth Shakespeare Company Artistic Director Steven Maler and his design team bring the audience onto the perimeter of the stage of the Carling-Sorenson Theater at Babson College and into the world of Birdy's rooftop aviary. Clint Ramos (scenic and costume design) has constructed an impressive jungle gym that Young Birdy (Spencer Hamp) and his best (only?) friend Young Al (Maxim Chumov) climb, swing from, and slide or jump down in their boyish pursuits. As the scenes shift from one location to another, or back and forth in time, Jeff Adelberg's lighting is the gps of the production, immediately identifying where the action is taking place. Although there are no actual pigeons, J Hagenbuckle provides an evocative sound track of cooing birds that convinces us of their presence on that roof, and costumes and props firmly root us in the mid-century period.
With this canvas in place, Maler's skillful direction unleashes a dazzling palette of colorful performances, each actor contributing a broad brush stroke to the communal masterpiece. The playwright adroitly combines the two halves of the story, and Maler employs a variety of methods to seamlessly transition between them, oftentimes requiring both actors (the older and younger versions of a character) to be onstage at the same time. After introducing the young men and showing the nature of their friendship, the story moves ahead to the Army hospital where Al (Keith White), recovering from his war wounds, is summoned by an authoritarian doctor (Steven Barkhimer, very good) to try to reach his friend Birdy (Will Taylor), locked in his shell-shocked interior world. Aided by Renaldi, a sympathetic conscientious objector nurse, (Damon Singletary), Al struggles to come to terms with his own psychological demons in the hopes of better understanding and helping Birdy.
There is a palpable contrast in the moods established in the two time periods. At the hospital, under the harsh glare of white fluorescent lights and the cynical, critical scrutiny of Dr. White, Al's ramrod straight posture and clipped speech reflect his anger and the severity of the situation. Birdy cowers wordlessly, either in a baby bird-like crouch or seated on folded legs with his arms wrapped around his torso like a straitjacket. Renaldi behaves like a prisoner, always on edge awaiting the next aspersion to be cast his way for his c.o. status, or his race, or both. By comparison, the boyhood scenes are filled with energy, affection, and nuances of sound and light that imply the innocence and joy the boys share. If this were a film, the flashbacks would be shot with an ethereal gauze effect.
Wallace is generous in describing the young men's relationship in dialogue (Al: "Nobody Else (i)'ve ever known had such a close friend. It's almost like we're married."), but it falls on the actors to show us what she's telling us. The chemistry between Hamp and Chumov makes it easy to believe the camaraderie of these two boys who are such unlikely friends. The nerd and the jock each offer the other something missing in their own life and they complete each other. As a result of their convincing portrayals, no leap is necessitated to buy into the power of the magnetic connection between the older Al and Birdy. White's surface edginess and defiance are a cover for Al's inner wounds and dependence that subtly bleed through. Even though he is a tough guy, he is willing to admit, at least to Renaldi and himself, that he loves and needs his friend.
As good as all of the performances are, Taylor's is the most astounding and revelatory. His Birdy doesn't have a single word of dialogue, but he speaks volumes with his eyes, his desperate trembling, and his overall body language. The way he projects character and emotions with his intense physicality serves as a master class in nonverbal acting technique. It is heartbreaking to watch him, yet strangely uplifting, because he persuades the audience that this is Birdy's choice.
Wallace wrote her adaptation of Wharton's 1978 novel in 1997 and it premiered in London. Birdy had its U.S. premiere in Philadelphia in 1998 with an eye toward a later Broadway production that failed to materialize. An unrelated 1984 film, starring Matthew Modine and Nicolas Cage, moved the time period to the post-Vietnam War era. However, maintaining the original WW II setting injects the story with a broader impact, perhaps owing to the mythical "greatness" of that war and the universal respect for that generation, as opposed to the political vitriol associated with Vietnam. The play transcends the decades to resonate in a country that seems to be constantly at war, where the power of friendship must still be applied as a balm to the traumatized to help heal their wounds.