By Christopher Caggiano
Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s production of Birdy is at its best when it focuses on the play’s central relationships.
Birdy, adapted by Naomi Wallace from the novel by William Wharton. Directed by Steven Maler. Staged by the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company at Carling-Sorenson Theater, Babson College, Wellesley, MA, through March 17.
The Commonwealth Shakespeare Company has been a welcome part of the Boston cultural scene since 1996, when it began producing free Shakespeare productions on the Boston Common. Since 2013, the CSC has also been the theater-in-residence at Babson College in Wellesley, where it has produced such works as Wendy Wasserstein’s Old Money and Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden.
The CSC’s latest offering is Birdy, a harrowing but affecting play based on the 1978 novel of the same name by William Wharton, but which many may remember from the 1984 film version with Nicolas Cage and Matthew Modine.
At the center of Birdy are two friends, Al and Birdy, presented at two different ages, as childhood buddies and as ravaged World War II veterans. Al presents himself as an Italian tough guy, but we eventually see the tortured animus and deep-seated terror that lie at his core. “Birdy” is a childhood nickname, based on the character’s all-consuming obsession with all things aviary. We never learn his real name, perhaps as an indication that he has all but lost his identity in his singular focus on birds.
The play alternates between scenes of the two men consorting as teenagers (Spencer Hamp as Young Birdy, Maxim Chumov as Young Al) and later scenes with a shut-down, wordless Birdy (Will Taylor) in a military psychiatric facility and a physically wounded Al (Keith White) trying desperately to communicate with Birdy and awake him from his bird-like stupor.
Steven Maler, the founding artistic director of the CSC, directs a strong ensemble cast. Hamp is masterful as Young Birdy, capturing the boy’s quirkiness, but also infusing it with a sense of gleaming, bald-faced wonder. Keith White makes for a suitably gruff older Al, but suggests enough sensitivity to evoke the character’s wounded core.
One of the most compelling aspects of Maler’s production, and indeed Wallace’s script, lies in how they both wisely present the relationship between the two men — almost as factual exegesis. There’s no moralizing or searching for pat conclusions. Best of all, there’s no artificial revelatory moment when all of Birdy’s trauma suddenly makes sense, á la Ordinary People or Good Will Hunting.
Maler artfully brings out the homoerotic overtones of Al and Birdy’s friendship without crossing into sensationalism. We’re never entirely clear on why Al is so bound to Birdy, why the pair have bonded so closely, but that’s part of the relationship’s dramatic appeal. We’re left to draw our own conclusions. However, there is rather gag-inducing moment involving oatmeal, although this is likely a deliberate attempt on Maler’s part to bring home the visceral nature of the men’s relationship.
Naomi Wallace’s script deliberately avoids supplying too much detail, preferring a more impressionistic approach. Her prose tends toward the poetic, which is generally an asset, though it can become distracting when certain speeches jump into the discursive and the rarefied, particularly those from the nurse (Damon Singletary) who is attending Birdy in the army hospital.
Birdy is at its best when it focuses on the central relationships. The production loses intensity when either the nurse or Dr. White, the army psychiatrist (Steven Barkhimer), are on stage. Dr. White’s character comes off as inexplicably inconsistent. He spends much of the play grilling Al, digging for clues to break through to Birdy. Which makes it rather jarring at the end when Dr. White launches into a tirade about the cowardice of his patients. Why did he become a psychiatrist if he’s so dismissive of these head cases?
Throughout the production, Maler makes abundant use of Tony winner Clint Ramos’s three-tier jungle gym set, full of working-class objet trouvé as well as a few surprises, including one that produces a final stage picture that’s a coup de theatre. This haunting image serves as an indelible reminder of the invisible bonds that bind us together and the pain that pushes us apart.
Christopher Caggiano is a writer and teacher based in Boston. He serves as Associate Professor of Theater at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee. His writing has appeared in American Theatre and Dramatics magazines, and on TheaterMania.com and ZEALnyc.com.