Dallas — Conor McPherson has a pedigree of pressure-cooker plays like his ghost-story laden The Weir and menacingly maniacal The Night Alive. So, a classic story like Daphne Du Maurier’s avian apocalyptic: The Birds (same source material for Alfred Hitchcock’s classic movie of the same name) in Theatre Three’s claustrophobic basement space, Theatre Too, should be a perfect match. But something in director John Ruegsegger’s production keeps the chills from running all the way down the spine.
Set Designer Scott Osborne delivers a bric-a-brac packed Mississippi basement to which Nat (Jamall Houston) and Diane (Felicia Bertch) have holed up. The ground level windows’ haphazard fortifications allow lighting designer Bryant Yeager a chance to pass day to night and back without leaving the dank confines. The birds swarm in time with the tides, you see, and it’s death to be caught out in their fluttering fury as reinforced by Marco Salinas’ sometimes unbalanced sound design.
So, it’s surprising when Julia (Madison Hart) happens upon their safe haven hideaway. Costume designer Susan Yanofsky tells Julia’s story from the get-go with her belly-baring get-up. What had been a story of the challenges of survival becomes more complicated, but less escapist.
When the world is too far-gone to spend imagination space on envisioning a brighter version, darkness calls. Doomsday scenarios offer the fantasy of a reset, however bleak, to the complexities of modern life. The audience opts for the horror over the happy because it offers exciting life and death alternatives instead of the barrage of choices that modern convenience provides. Julia’s introduction muddies the waters, but that isn’t totality of the evening’s problems.
Bertch plays her Diane with an edge of fear mixed with mothering care for Houston’s imposing Nat. When Hart’s overtly bad girl, Julia, injects herself into the mix, Bertch has to pivot in order to balance the triangle. Director Ruegsegger doesn’t get Houston to make any adjustment, instead allowing him to lean into his interpretation of Nat as slightly imbalanced. Bertch is very watchable and arguably the protagonist as evidenced by her voice-over narration. Hart simmers as Julia and really shines when she tells stories of the outside world. The two make formidable opponents, but with Houston’s obtuse Nat, it isn’t clear who is winning. That’s the director’s job.
That and clean transitions.
The two-person scenes hold up better for tension and clarity. Winning, on both accounts, is a brief appearance by Greg Holt. He’s in the program, so it’s not a spoiler to mention him here. Without giving anything away, his five minutes raise the bar and his exit leaves behind a more noticeable absence than when any other character leaves the space.
At the end of 80 minutes it’s unclear how to feel. The relief of not being under threat of marauding birds mingles with the return of whatever worries you left at the door.
Maybe they’re the same thing.
If only they went out with the tides, too.