Birdy, Commonwealth Shakespeare Company [Babson Arts, Wellesley, through March 17. commshakes.org]
By Jules Becker
Decades before experts identified PTSD, William Wharton was vividly and hauntingly describing it in his memorable novel “Birdy.”
A moving look at the adolescence to adulthood bromance of two fictional best friends, “Birdy” also focuses in good part on the wartime treatment of the title character’s formidable disorder and buddy Al’s considerable efforts to help. Talented playwright Naomi Wallace+ (“One Flea Spear”) gave impressive attention to both their singular friendship and Birdy’s profound struggle in her affecting adaptation of the same name – now in a soaring production by Commonwealth Shakespeare Company at Babson College’s Carling-Sorenson Theater.
Clint Ramos’ brilliant scenic design serves notice — before a word is spoken – of the challenges confronting both friendship and treatment of Birdy’s disorder. A stage-spanning metal construct resembles in its own way a jungle gym on which Birdy and Al will climb. Exploring its three levels and many experience-related props — among them hub caps and baseball bats – the stalwart friends will arrive at the construct’s top meant to serve as a kind of roof and take-off place for Birdy’s flight. Wallace has smartly turned the two men into Young Al and Young Birdy, and Al and Birdy, to facilitate the play’s flashbacks and insights about the characters’ very different fortunes and development.
CSC artistic director Steve Maler sure-handedly pilots the highs and lows of the friends’ experiences and their respective moves between past and present. Maxim Chumov captures Young Al’s appealing ardor and support for Young Birdy. Spencer Hamp finds all of Young Birdy’s reserve and diffidence. One of the most arresting moments in the play involves sexually savvy Young Al educating Young Birdy about the intimacy essential to dating. That education has Young Al even inviting Young Birdy to practice by caressing his pecs as though they were breasts. The result is a stretch of homoerotic closeness that most importantly demonstrates not only Young Al’s caring for Young Birdy but also the former’s apparent lack of uptightness where sexual matters are involved.
That self-confidence continues with Al, played with tenacity and feistiness by Keith White. White’s Al rightfully stands up to Dr. White, who treats Birdy as though the top priority is sending him back to the war front as soon as possible. Here candid Al intrepidly rejects the hardline doctor’s seeming insinuation that the two soldiers are impulsively pleasuring each other. Steve Barkhimer has all of White’s one-track medical attitudes. By contrast, Damon Singletary — replacing James Ricardo Milord as Renaldi — has all of his understanding and patience nursing Birdy.
Perhaps most stunning of all is Will Taylor’s uncanny portrayal of Birdy. Watch Taylor’s second act foot movements as he crouches in an amazing balletic stance on his toes and his corresponding arm gesturing. Taylor truly captures Birdy’s attention to identifying with the pigeons and other flyers that he prizes and with whom he identifies. Losing himself in the role, he instantly brings an unlikely majesty to this unforgettable character.
If you have read the fine novel (or merely seen the sensitive 1984 movie version), you will find Wallace’s adaptation and Maler’s staging equally triumphant. Most of all CSC makes Wharton’s beautiful ode to friendship, nature and the imagination take wings.