The Irish playwright Conor McPherson has spun any number of what might be dubbed existential ghost stories, including “The Weir,” “Shining City” and “Port Authority.” So it is not at all surprising that he decided to craft his own free-form adaptation of “The Birds,” the chilling, densely feathered story first spun by Daphne du Maurier in a 1952 novella (set in Cornwall, England, in the wake of World War II) and Alfred Hitchcock’s classic 1962 film (largely re-imagined, and set in Bodega Bay, California).
McPherson’s 2009 adaptation, now receiving a Griffin Theatre production directed by Kevin Kingston, is set in rural New England in a time described as “the near future.” It hints of some combination of catastrophe brought on by human failing and perhaps larger ecological screw-ups. But what kept coming to mind during a viewingthis past weekend were the current headlines, and the terror experienced by locals in the upstate New York community where two convicted murderers recently escaped from prison and have yet to be caught.
‘THE BIRDS’ Somewhat recommended When: Through July 19 Where: Griffin Theatreat Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Tickets: $35 Info: (773) 975-8150; www.theaterwit.org Run time: 95 minutes with no intermission
The first sounds we hear are the mad, insistent flapping of wings and the shrill cries of a huge flock of unseen birds just beyond the shuttered windows of a rustic cabin. It is there that Diane (Jodi Kingsley), a divorced woman estranged from her beloved grown daughter, and Nat (Keith Neagle), the psychologically troubled stranger she has met while escaping the horror of the birds, have taken refuge.
How they met is never quite explained, but they clearly are two lonely and beleagured souls. Diane has nursed Nat back to health, but the more he emerges from sleep the more unstable she realizes he might be. Nevertheless, they form a bond as the birds come and go with the tides, as they share a very limited supply of food, and as they deal with the shut-down of electricity and radio transmissions.
Enter Julia (Emily Nichelson), an attractive young thing with a mysterious aura whose arrival is never fully explained. Just how much she can be believed is entirely up for grabs. And her presence is proof of the adage that “two is company, three is a crowd,” particularly as she not so subtly seduces Nat.
Something of a wild child, Julia goes out on foraging ventures and is quite successful in bringing back food and wine. Does she have some strange connection to Tierney (David Krajecki), the farmer with a shotgun who lives in the house across the lake? The answer remains murky. But Diane, who at one point has an encounter with that farmer, certainly has her suspicions.
Who among these four might be capable of betrayal and murder? Is there a future for them, or are they on the path to extinction? Or, might it be that this whole story is just the heated fantasy of a gifted and unhappy writer? It’s up to you to decide in this play whose wildly uneven tone (at turns blackly comic, realistic and post-apocalyptically philosophical) repeatedly shatters what should be an intense spell of terror.
The actors do a valiant job of conjuring all the ambivalence in both their characters and the situation. But the play more often than not undermines them. As for the birds (cheers for Stephen Ptacek’s sound design), they are just as ominous as they should be.