I confess, I'm a fan of the current craze for post-apocalyptic stories, whether on page, screen, or stage, and whether caused by zombies, climate change, or war. So, it seems, is Curio Theatre Company. My vague recollection of Alfred Hitchcock's 1963 The Birds didn't register the film as belonging to this peculiarly modern genre, but that's where Irish playwright Conor McPherson’s (The Weir, Shining City) adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier's 1952 short story dwells.
Curio gives the play an impressively immersive production, with a realistic set by Paul Kuhn that wraps around the audience (and more), trapping us in the house where three survivors live a claustrophobic existence. When we enter Curio's home, we see a complete, three-dimensional house; we continue in through the same front door the actors use, into a space that has four walls and a ceiling. The only clue that we're inside a larger theater is an echo, which adds a spooky tone. Robin Stamey's lighting follows the candles, lanterns, and stove that are its realistic sources, then explodes with subtle colors and streaks as light streams through gaps in the set's boarded-up windows. Chris Sannino's sound design incorporates recorded and live sounds (Those vicious birds are pecking at the house!), though he depends too much on scary music cues.
A devastated world
The devastating attacks by birds have already paralyzed the world when the play begins. Diane — played powerfully by Aetna Gallagher, a core Curio company member who too seldom receives leading roles — reveals in recorded voiceovers that no one knows why the birds have turned vicious. We hear the last few radio broadcasts before all goes silent.
Diane thought she was the only local survivor until she rescued Nat (Rich Bradford).
The arrival of young Julia (Tessa Kuhn) upsets their perilous existence. Inevitably, a complicated triangle evolves, and McPherson develops a familiar post-apocalyptic theme: when civilization collapses, the most dangerous animals in the world are human.
In fact, we don't see birds at all in the play, unless one counts the wallpaper's subtle irony. We hear them often, but they're a McGuffin, the device that defines the situation. In The Walking Dead, it's zombies. In both, the real story is about surviving other people. Only one other appears — Ken Opdenaker, masterful in the play's most suspenseful scene — but that's enough to build the 100-minute play's tension, as director Elizabeth Carlson-Guerin does with patient skill. Even when the play's realistically portrayed activities seem tedious (candles lit and blown out, shutters opened and closed, blankets spread out and stored away), these grim survival details build to a powerful finale.
Carlson-Guerin allows uneasy silences to take their toll, and lets Stamey's appropriately dim, spooky lighting add to the play's claustrophobic embrace. Though we never see actual attacks, The Birds is a superbly scary experience.
What, When, Where
The Birds. By Conor McPherson, Elizabeth Carlson-Guerin directed. Through Oct. 29, 2016 at the Curio Theatre Company, 4740 Baltimore Avenue, Philadlephia. (215) 525-1350 or curiotheatre.org.