Theater review: Terror takes wing in ‘The Birds’

St. Johnn Blondell - Jenny Donovan, Matthew Vaky, Stephanie Mumford in the Quotidian Theatre Company production of "The Birds."

In 15 brisk, well-acted scenes, Quotidian Theatre Company’s “The Birds” does an efficient job of creeping an audience out — in a good way.

That noted, the show’s strong cast has a hurdle to overcome in the staging. Long blackouts between scenes, in which we can see actors carrying props on and off in the gloom, threaten to deplete the buildup of tension. Happily, director Jack Sbarbori’s performers manage to reignite the sense of danger every time. But those scene changes remain a distraction that cries out for a more visually inventive approach.

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Irish playwright Conor McPherson’s 2009 play, having its Washington area premiere at Quotidian, was inspired by the same Daphne du Maurier short story as Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 film “The Birds.” And like Hitchcock, McPherson uses the original as a mere jumping-off point. His play has nothing to do with the film and retains only one character from du Maurier’s 1952 story.

Theatergoers who’ve seen other McPherson plays, such as “The Seafarer,” “Shining City” and “The Weir,” won’t be surprised that “The Birds” eventually turns its gaze from otherworldly horror to questions of moral and spiritual import. If the birds of the world turn en masse against humankind, how should we then behave toward one another? Are deception, murder and selfish survivalism justifiable? As one character warns another, “Be a Christian — see where it gets you.” By the play’s end, that issue and others remain darkly unresolved.

The first person we meet in McPherson’s Ireland of the “near future” is Diane (Stephanie Mumford in a strong turn). Seated at a tiny desk at the edge of the stage, she confides in the audience, sharing her private journal. After the bird attacks began, she explains, people gleaned news and a tenuous connectedness from faint, static-filled radio broadcasts. These have now ceased, and everyone fears that the avian onslaughts have gone global, with all survivors ultimately doomed.

Diane and Nat (Matthew Vaky) have taken refuge in an abandoned farmhouse. They met on the road while escaping one of the bird swarms, broke into the house (designed by Sbarbori as a spartan, ramshackle outpost) and reinforced it. They scavenge for food between attacks (evoked chillingly in Ed Moser’s sound design) and live in chaste harmony, more or less.

One day a stranger appears, begging for safe haven and upsetting Diane and Nat’s delicate balance. Julia (Jenny Donovan) is young, pretty and bad news. Donovan does a good job with Julia’s furtiveness, prevarication and changeability. She’s sweet and convivial one minute, furious and accusatory the next. One day, when Julia and Nat have gone off in search of food, a farmer (Ted Schneider) from across the lake comes to see Diane. He warns her that three will soon be a crowd and that she’s not safe. She seems to reject his premise, but watch what happens next.

“The Birds” takes flight, thanks to the cast’s deep connection to McPherson’s little horror story, and despite those cumbersome scene changes.

Horwitz is a freelance writer

The Birds

By Conor McPherson, based on the short story by Daphne du Maurier. Directed by Jack Sbarbori. Lighting design, Don Slater. About 1 hour, 45 minutes, with no intermission. Presented through Aug. 11 by Quotidian Theatre Company at the Writer’s Center, 4408 Walsh St., Bethesda. 301-816-1023 or www.quotidiantheatre.org.

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