Smile Politely

At the Station, Birds is more brains, fewer feathers

My first thoughts regarding a stage play version of The Birds ran along the lines of how easily such a thing could look cheap, amateurish, and just plain bad. You’re probably thinking about it right now, too, and it’s a strong enough mental image that it defies reason. Clearly we should take a deep breath and remember how much we trust the board of the Celebration Company at the Station Theatre to bring us quality plays for the past 45 years. With a second breath, we can be reminded that playwright Conor McPherson is more about people than props. Both of these factors should be enough to reassure the theatergoing public, but just in case, we sat down with the director, Thom Schnarre, and his stellar cast. 

With only four roles to fill, it would be characteristic of a show at the Station to just talk to a few folks and end up with a cast. However, Schnarre said that while he knew he was hoping to have Carolyn Kodes play Diane, the tell-all diarist, the players for the rest weren’t in his mind. Auditions can sometimes limit a director to cast from a shallow pool, but in this case it yielded a bounty of veterans: Jeremiah Lowry came out for the male principal, Nat; Krystal Moya wanted to be the manipulative upstart Julia; and the shadowy neighbor allegedly named Tierney is played by Lincoln Machula. This quartet has worked together in different combinations over the years, and many with director Thom Schnarre, who describes this lineup as “a dream team”, full of strong contributors and collaborators. That’s definitely a blessing, because these four spend quite a bit of time in close quarters, seeking refuge from the pestilent titular monsters.

Those antagonists have been represented variously throughout different productions of this script. Some theatres have actually staged live birds, even though they aren’t called for, but most opt for implied visuals or just audio. In such close quarters, Schnarre has decided that the Station’s birds should be “in sound only”, which tells you all you need to know about the lack of gruesome visuals. Even though McPherson used the same source material (a DuMarier short story) as Hitchcock, both writers took the idea and ran – in very different directions. This version focuses primarily on the mental effect suffered by survivors of an avian apocalypse. The birds have ruined everything: no media, no electricity, and nowhere that’s safe. Stuck together in that type of abandoned house teens party in, middle-aged Nat and Diane were trying to establish a routine when the young and beautiful Julia arrived needing shelter, which triggered shifting alliances and power plays. Every once in a while, a neighbor stops by, although he has his own refuge, his motives aren’t readily apparent but are highly suspect. All of these characters appear to be rather complex and require the kind of nuance that could only be delivered by experienced actors.

Pulling such talented and practiced players from a general audition seemed like quite a feat, and when asked what brought them out for such an odd production, every actor cited a desire to do something “different.” Krystal Moya confessed to being drawn to Schnarre as a director as well as his script-choices, because they are often dark. Although her role of Julia is just as enigmatic as her previous role in a Schnarre-directed play (Mine), Moya likes that this woman is “manipulative, willing to do whatever she needs to put herself in the best position to survive. It seems more realistic.” Carolyn Kodes agrees about her own character seeming realistic, saying, “Diane is clear-headed, perceptive and decisive. She understands the implications of her decisions, especially one major choice she makes.” We went on to discuss how this actually is the reality for many women, including many similarities she found to her own mother. When we spoke of how McPherson’s women are usually underwritten, both women felt these roles were exceptional in that regard. Kodes went as far to say, “Perhaps he wrote Diane the way he thinks a man would act, but that just shows he doesn’t know how women really are.”

This line of conversation led quickly into a debate regarding whether Nat or Diane is the true principal character. According to Jeremiah, “Nat is a boy. He might physically be a man, but his experiences and mindset are very young. This has been my first chance to play a guy who is just a mess.” According to Schnarre as director, the manchild is written as the main character, but in the end it is Diane who drives the action, although the cast seems undecided. I guess we’ll have to wait and see. Lincoln’s role, the creepy farmer neighbor Tierney, drew his interest because the character is very spiritual, open to hearing the needs of the universe and looking for redemption. “I love this guy, because he is so dedicated to finding meaning, to doing something of worth.”

Between the discussion of Tierney and Diane, Schnarre talked about McPherson’s trademark morality as it is applied to these roles, “Everyone is trying to be so strong, because that’s what you need to do to survive. But there are these moments…these moments where they break.” He also revealed that this particular script is vague and open to interpretation, another common aspect of works by this playwright. As a team, the small cast and director considered various interpretations and came to a decision – something different than most previous productions – that they all hinted would make the climax a seat-gripper. “It was just one choice we made,” said the director, “and we didn’t change any text, but this one decision, it changed everything.”

With a tease like that, I was hooked. Coming off the previous McPherson production, I had my doubts whether I was up for another intensely spiritual play that puts a few people in a house under tense circumstances and watches it all unfold. The last one nearly undid me in the best possible way, but there’s only so many times you can put yourself through that kind of experience. After only a half-hour of conversation with this cast, however, I am intrigued beyond caution.

If you’re also dying to know what happens next, The Birds opens tomorrow night, Thursday, November 3rd, at 8 p.m. and continue through the 19th. Tickets are $10 on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays, and $15 on the weekends. Reservations can be made online or by calling 217-384-4000. 

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