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American Stage successfully tackles ‘The Birds’


Published:   |   Updated: October 8, 2013 at 07:22 AM

During the first scenes of “The Birds,” the terror is outside. After the intermission, the terror moves inside.

More thought-provoking than terrifying, the first play of American Stage’s new season is a well-acted, cleverly staged psychological thriller based on Dame Daphne Du Maurier’s 1952 short story.

It opened on Friday for a four-week run and is a fitting selection as a prelude to Halloween.

In Du Maurier’s original story, as well as Alfred Hitchcock’s terrifying 1963 film, nature has inexplicably turned on humans. Flocks of birds have mysteriously started attacking and killing people.

In Irish playwright Conor McPherson’s 2009 play, these angry birds serve as a catalyst to explore how people might react when civilization breaks down.

In this version of “The Birds,” three people are trapped and under siege in a small abandoned cottage in the New England countryside. Their story unfolds in 15 scenes covering several days or more of their ordeal.

The play touches on fear, paranoia, end-of-times doomsday and survival of the shrewdest. But McPherson’s scenes are disjointed at times. Much drama happens off stage that is passed off with a line or two. The characters’ motivations are not clear, and a sexual tension that should be there is lacking. Even so, it’s an enjoyable experience with an ending that stimulates discussion.

Audience members who have seen Hitchcock’s film come with certain expectations. And the creative crew at American Stage, under Todd Olson, the theater company’s artistic director, gives a nod to Hitch’s scary threatening crows.

Olson, who also serves as sound designer, effectively creates audio fear with squawks, caws and fluttering wings of the invading birds.

Impressive in the cast is Roxanne Fay in the role of Diane, a lonely writer who takes refuge at the cottage with Nat, a man she recently met on the road. Fay, a veteran of New York, Chicago and Tampa stages, does an excellent job of playing a complex character of quiet desperation. Much of the story is told through her eyes.

Richard B. Watson also is good as Nat, a loud, volatile, heavy drinker who might have been a party animal in better times.

Thrown together by circumstances, Diane and Nat are beginning to bond when a younger woman arrives. Gretchen Porro, making her American Stage debut, plays that woman, Julia. Porro gives a solid performance as a woman who may not be what she seems.

Adding a light touch in a dark play is Joseph Parra as Tierney, a neighboring farmer who has quickly adapted to accepting nature’s mayhem. Only on stage for a brief time, Parra’s character makes a lasting impression. Is he a harmless old fool or a potential threat?

Helping create the claustrophobic and sense-of-doom atmosphere are lighting designer Joseph P. Oshry and scene designer Jeffery W. Dean.

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