At Babson, CSC’s triumphant ‘Birdy’ takes flight
WELLESLEY – When it is not performing on Boston Common, Babson College is the home of the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company, and it has quickly become an important part of the Boston theater scene, despite being located in this leafy Boston suburb.
Artistic Director Steven Maler has staged some well-received, oft-challenging productions since the partnership with the school was first announced in 2013 and then extended for three more years in 2016.
The latest is a triumphant production of “Birdy,” Naomi Wallace’s stage adaptation of William Wharton’s 1978 novel, now being performed in Babson’s Carling-Sorenson Theater through March 17.
Maler has engaged a strong cast and realized equally strong production values from a talented team of designers in bringing the work to life in a very intimate setting on the stage of the Carling-Sorenson Theater.
Spring Sirkin, the winner of four Tony Awards as a producer, runs the Chamber Theatre Company and is the former president of the Elliot Norton Awards. She is listed as a producer of this production, and was instrumental in persuading Wallace to write the adaptation.
“Birdy” is the story of two young men growing up outside of Philadelphia who would seem to be mismatched but bond despite their differences. Young Birdy (Spencer Hamp) is equally fascinated by birds and their ability to fly, and his devotion to the former leads to an obsession to perfect his skills in the latter area, often with harrowing results.
Young Al (Maxim Shumov) is more firmly grounded in the harsh realities of life, and more concerned with sports and the charms of the ladies around him.
Wallace skilfully navigates events involving the two friends pre-war and post-World War II, the scenes of their earlier lives setting up and explaining much of what will transpire after the war.
As the play opens, the older Al (Keith White), himself still suffering from war wounds, has been summonsed to a Army hospital in Kentucky to see if he can aid Birdy, (Will Taylor), who is shell-shocked and unresponsive, crouching in a bird-like stance and unable to even feed himself.
Al’s heart breaks as he watches his best friend being spoon-fed.
Steven Barkimer is the imperious Dr. White, the Army psychiatrist eager to get his head around the strange case and bring Birdy back to some semblance of life.
He grills Al on what kind of relationship the men have had through the years and whether it ever extended beyond friendship. He says that if Al can’t help Birdy, then he might as well throw up his hands and consign Birdie to the trash heap of medical lost causes at a hospital in Florida.
His tone is resented by Al, the target of abuse growing up and ever on the defensive.
There is a funny and touching scene between Young Birdy and Al, when Al preps Birdy for the upcoming prom and how to “round the bases” with his date.
Damon Singletary is Renaldi, another victim of the war but in a very different way as a black man at that time and place and a CO – a conscientious objector, looked upon as the lowest form of military life. He is as a nurse wearing the scarlet letter in a battle for his life every day, the indignities and disrespect piled upon him even as he does his best to tend to the survivors of war.
As the war-battered Birdy, Taylor has to have both great concentration and the physical strength to portray the character, who spends long stretches up on his toes, in a bird-like crouch.
Director Steven Maler has asked a lot of the cast and designers, and they have responded in a marvelous fashion.
Much-decorated Tony Award-winning set designer Clint Ramos and associate scenic designer Jeffrey Peterson have constructed a towering edifice that includes scaffolding and ladders, interspersed with objects such as baseball bats and broken windows that are elements of the story.
It serves as an aviary on the roof of a building, or the launch point for many of Birdy’s aerial adventures.
Sound designer J Hagenbuckle is another key contributor, with birds tweeting from all areas and angles of the theater and Sally Tomasetti’s props – including wooden and aluminum wings – will come to the fore in Birdy’s efforts to take flight.
The play itself has no such problems. “Birdy” takes flight early and soars across the stage, a story of how love and friendship can transcend pain and the worst war has to offer.
The Commonwealth Shakespeare Company production of Naomi Wallace’s “Birdy.” Based on the novel by William Wharton. Directed by Steven Maler. Produced by Spring Sirkin. Scenic and costume design by Clint Ramos. Associate scenic designer: Jeffrey Petersen. Lighting design by Jeff Adelberg. Sound design by J Hagenbuckle. Props artisan: Sally Tomasetti. At the Carling-Sorenson Theater at Babson College through March 17. commshakes.org