Daphne du Maurier’s short story “The Birds” was published in 1952; Alfred Hitchcock was fascinated enough by it to develop it into his 1963 movie The Birds, and Conor McPherson adapted it into a play in 2009 – yet other than the plot device of birds coming to attack, these three versions have very little in common. Such is the power of a good idea; it can spin off into many forms and still hold you in its grasp. Barrington Stage Company’s production of McPherson’s play is a terrifying, taut piece of work – perfect for the space in which it’s performed and the time in which we live.
Nat (Stevie Ray Dallimore) and Diane (Kathleen McNenny) are strangers who take shelter together in a small cabin when the birds attack – nothing much is known about why the attacks are happening, other than they occur every six hours, with the tides. They grow to rely on one another (as there may not be anyone else left … except maybe a man with a gun across the lake), hunting for food when the birds have gone, hunkering down when they’re outside. Enter Julia (Sasha Diamond) – a young woman who seems to be seeking the same things they are – but rules have changed, and the birds aren’t the only ones to fear.
There’s a sense of doom over the proceedings – not only because of the birds, but the why of the birds. The setting is present-day, so is it climate change, a nuclear holocaust? There are hints of military action, everyone has a very brittle edge to them – something’s off-kilter, just enough, to make us wonder, to want to peel this back to see what’s happening. You’re left wondering – and the fact that we carry that question with us as we leave the theater, to interpret it as we will, is a stroke of genius.
The actors are cast perfectly. McNenny’s performance is both strong and nuanced at once; she’s a woman who’s been through hell, come through the other side, and still carries that burden with her – but also has a deep well of strength she keeps hidden. Dallimore plays a broken man with finesse and Diamond’s layers and hints of malice are chilling. Rocco Sisto, who comes in late in the production, has a character that’s hard to forget (and one I don’t want to spoil.)
The set itself is masterful – a small cabin, everything in its place – but it’s the evocation of the birds that’s the standout here. Filmed birds are shown on panels flanking the set, and the sound design is so masterful that you’d swear you’re amongst the birds – the rustle of the dry feathers, the tapping of the claws and beaks, then finally, their cries.
This production is one for horror and suspense fans, but also for fans of the what-if – and what are we heading toward now, if not that terrifying what-if? And how might we behave, once we’re finally there?
“The Birds,” Barrington Stage Company, St. Germain Stage, 36 Linden St., Pittsfield, MA, through July 8, $48-$15, Run time: 90 minutes, https://barringtonstageco.org/