Commonwealth Shakespeare's "Birdy": Avian Calling

Maxim Chumov & Spencer Hamp in "Birdy"
(photo: Evgenia Eliseeva)

Adapting a novel for the stage has its inherent challenges, given the sheer number of characters and subplots in a typical written work, such as the well-intentioned novel The Color Purple which when staged nearly sank from the sheer weight of exposition. This was not the case, however, when playwright Naomi Wallace created her version of the book Birdy, the fledging work by William Wharton (the pen name for Albert Du Aime), who died a decade ago. The first novel by this psychologist at age fifty, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, was lauded for its unusual format of long interior monologues (some rather undisciplined) and time shifts, which presented unique and seemingly impossible pitfalls for adaptation. Wallace first presented her play in London in 1997, and off-Broadway in 2003. (It had previously been adapted for a 1984 film version with then newcomers Nicholas Cage and Matthew Modine). This newly revised script, now being performed by Commonwealth Shakespeare Company at Babson College in Wellesley at the Carling-Sorenson Theater, is a revelation of just how a stream-of-consciousness source can molt into a full-fledged play of such brilliant creativity.

Maxim Chumov & Spencer Hamp in "Birdy"
(photo: Evgenia Eliseeva)

Birdy in all of its iterations may be said to center on the fight or flight response. Childhood friends in a working class Philadelphia hood, young Al (Maxim Chumov) and young Birdy (Spencer Hamp) are an unlikely teen couple, given the former's macho focus on body building and chasing girls and the latter's ethereal, reclusive and bizarre growing obsession with birds, initially pigeons and ultimately canaries. Al deals with a violently abusive father, while the introverted Birdy has detached parents wallowing in poverty. It should be noted that four actors play the two friends at different stages before and after World War II, first as teenagers then as young men who cross paths again in the war, each with scars, one literally physically wounded, the other suffering from what would be called today PTSD.

Keith White, Will Taylor & Damon Singletary in "Birdy"
(photo: Evgenia Eliseeva)

The older Al (Keith White) and older Birdy (Will Taylor) end up in the same psych ward in an army hospital in Kentucky where they encounter Dr. White (Steven Barkhimer) and nurse (and conscientious objector) Renaldi (Damon Singletary). Now in their twenties, Birdy no longer speaks, which confounds the professionals, leading to Al's being asked to help ground Birdy once again, or Birdy will be shipped out to an asylum. Their story, which has some homoerotic undertones (especially when Young Al coaches Young Birdy about making out with girls) asks the age-old question as to who is mad and who is sane, especially in times of war. Birdy's survival mechanism is not just to fly, but actually to become a bird; in this struggle he has evolved into an almost catatonic state which only Al might be able to penetrate.

Steven Barkhimer, Martin Chumov & Keith White in "Birdy"
(photo: Evgenia Eliseeva)

Directed by Steven Maler, this cast of six is exemplary, especially Will Taylor as the older Birdy. Chumov and Hamp are terrific together, and White excels in the largest role. The amazingly eclectic Scenic Design by Clint Ramos (who also did the Costume Design), intricate Lighting Design by Jeff Adelberg, and perfectly coordinated Sound Design by J. Hagenbuckle all soar.

With its themes of love, friendship and war's destruction ( its message about war is especially contemporary), the play (as was the case with the novel and film), while sometimes dour, has much lightness and humor (such as a line straight from the novel: calling Birdy “most likely to suck seed”). It posits the power of friendship to heal. The playwright has quoted William Faulkner: “the past is never dead. It's not even past”. Her major change to the novel is the ending (as usual, no spoilers here), true to the spirit of the source, for a theatrical experience reminiscent of another remarkable play, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.

Good news for fans of the novel (who are legion): the play will be here through March 17th.

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