Hitchcock enthusiasts hoping for a theatrical recreation of the director’s classic 1963 film The Birds may not find what they are looking for in Conor McPherson’s stage version at 59E59, but audiences with a taste for suspense and psychological turmoil will find much to enjoy. It is a play about fear, community, and survival, all complicated by the steady encroachment of claustrophobia and paranoia. All this plays out in the tiny space of 59E59’s black box which, regular sight-line difficulties notwithstanding, enhances the ever-growing tension at the play’s center.
McPherson in fact does not turn to Hitchcock for source material, but grounds his play instead in the same short story by Daphne Du Maurier that the director adapted for the movies. There he finds the story of a coastal farmhand who is determined to protect his family against the sudden, unexplained homicidal habits of the birds. Where Hitchcock embellished and inflated the story for the big screen, McPherson condenses and concentrates. We meet Nat (Tony Naumovski) and Diane (Antoinette LaVecchia) shortly after they have banded together to take shelter in a small farmhouse. Both were driving when they determined the outside too dangerous, and that their best bet for survival was the shelter of a house and the company of another human.
The plot unfolds along the familiar lines of apocalypse literature: the characters know little about their world or the status of other survivors; they scavenge for food and other necessities while telling stories of their past lives; they grow paranoid about their environment; they question their own motivation for survival. When young, mysterious Julia (Mia Hutchinson-Shaw) wanders in with a head wound and a fascination with the Bible, Nat and Diane welcome her to their hovel but the delicate balance of the environment is disturbed, and we wonder if these people will be able to adapt or if the tension will grow to violence.
In many ways The Birds, or at least the theme of apocalypse, seems a natural move for McPherson, who directed the play’s 2009 premiere in Dublin. Throughout his career, the powerful Irish playwright has turned consistently to themes of loneliness and existential bewilderment, often unfolding in the space of nascent, strained community. The Birds exemplifies and intensifies all of that. Nat and Diane’s every interaction is colored by the dark demons from their pasts that both fight but never fully reveal to each other or to us. Julia only magnifies this strain between community and isolation. All three are in this predicament together, but none understands fully who either of the other two are. It is hard enough for each to understand his or her self.
Under the direction of Stefan Dzeparoski, each of the three actors do excellent work to place their characters on the precarious edge between communal strength and psychological turmoil. Because Diane provides occasional voice-over narration from her journal, we come to know her the deepest, and LaVecchia impresses with her ability to show Diane to be at once steady, clear-eyed, and occasionally maternal, but in no way immune to the bitterness and paranoia that creeps around the tiny shared space like a blight.
Staged in the round in a small, flat space, the play invites its audience into the quagmire of claustrophobia, but the experience frequently suffers as a result of the seating arrangement. Any audience member not seated in a front row must consistently adjust and peer around other bodies to get a clear view of the stage, and even then some elements are inaccessible to various seating areas. The tight, shared space accentuates the play’s themes nicely, but in this case doing so comes at a cost of audience experience.