The Birds at the Guthrie
In the program notes for The Birds, playwright Conor McPherson talks about his youthful love of George A. Romero's zombie movies. It's an easy connection to see, as the play—just like the original Daphne du Maurier short story and the famous Alfred Hitchcock movie—deals with characters trapped at the end of the world.
I just wish he had taken other lessons from Romero films, like providing characters that we can, at least initially, care about. Instead, it's a slog with a quartet of characters who are either lost in their mad, new world or are so decidedly wrong that even the most desperate survivor would likely slam the door on them. That ends up being an important distinction, as the final third of the play turns on one of the characters becoming much darker than we expected, except it didn't come off as a moment of darkness so much as a relief: At least the show's most annoying character was finally offstage.
We join the apocalypse already in progress, amid the noise of a bird attack outside a farmhouse. Our two main characters, Nat (J.C. Cutler) and Diane (Angela Timberman), are trapped in the darkness. The radio is filled with static and eventually will go silent, and as far as the pair of strangers knows, they are the last two people to have survived the endless waves of bird attacks.
Sunlight eventually arrives, but the unease stays. They have found refuge in an isolated farmhouse. Food supplies are short, and they have only six hours of breathing space between the attacks. That unease becomes stronger when a third person, Julia (Summer Hagen), joins them in the house, pushing the situation closer to the boiling point. There's also the mysterious figure they see across the lake (Stephen Yoakam), who just adds to the oppression.
Some of these moments bring out the best in The Birds. None of the characters knew each other before the attacks, and their halting attempts to forge a new, end-of-the-world family are laughable at best. At times the inner tension becomes so strained that the inevitable screams of the returning birds come as a relief.
Still, I think that leads to one of the troubles I have with the play, either in McPherson's script or in director Henry Wishcamper's interpretation. Building a play around unlikable characters can work—Harold Pinter made a career out of it—but the play needs to provide something beyond them for us to latch onto. Humor, built out of rage (a common Pinter solution) or sheer absurdity (more in Samuel Beckett's wheelhouse—both playwrights are mentioned by McPherson as inspirations), can go a long way toward bridging the gap between the audience and the play. Instead, The Birds takes itself far too seriously without providing much reason for the somber tone.
A lot of this comes down to Timberman's Diane. She's our focal point. Her voice-over journal provides context for the months-long ordeal, while her motherly attempts to build a family should provide sympathy, but there's something off about the character from the very beginning that only telescopes as The Birds continues. That robs the play of some of its heft as we delve deeper and deeper. It also leaches away some of the menace in Yoakam's single scene (though not all of it—a man arriving in a cloak and welder's helmet hefting a rifle is going to offer scares, no matter the context), and it telegraphs the end of the play far too early.
Cutler is never afraid to explore the darkness, and he dives into the depths of Nat's emotional abyss. The character is carrying a lot of secrets—ones we never get to the bottom of. Hagen is a terrific actor, but she is given a character whose menace is all too clear from her first scene, so we never have a chance to forge a real bond with her.
Really, what we have here are three black holes, and that lack of light drags the play into its own abyss. There's little hope at the beginning of the play, and it completely disappears soon after. I was rooting for the birds to finish their job long before the play's end.
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