Reconciling the dreams of our youth with the realities of adulthood can be devastating, especially when the experience of war serves as the dividing line.
William Wharton’s novel “Birdy” explores that conflict through the eyes of two boyhood friends who are shattered by war — one physically, the other mentally. The book was adapted into a 1984 film starring Matthew Modine and Nicolas Cage, and into a play by MacArthur Fellow Naomi Wallace, produced at London’s West End in 1997 and off-Broadway in 2003. Now it returns with a newly revised script for a Commonwealth Shakespeare Company production Feb. 27-March 17 at Babson College’s Carling-Sorenson Theater in Wellesley.
“The hope and belief we have in ourselves when we’re young often clashes with the options we are presented as adults,” says Wallace. “But the past can be a source of power and inspiration, and a reminder not to be distracted by the falsehoods we are told later.”
“Birdy” focuses on Al, who comes from an abusive home and is determined to become physically strong, and Birdy, who is obsessed with his pet pigeons and determined to fly. Wharton set his novel before and after World War II, but Wallace says the action can occur anytime, anywhere since his themes of love, friendship, and war’s destruction are timeless.
“I tend to write non-linear plays,” says Wallace, whose works, including “One Flea Spare,” “Slaughter City,” and “The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek” capture uniquely human characters coping with situations that leave them without a moral compass.
“Birdy” director Steve Maler says Wallace’s poetic language — “so sculpted and crafted” — makes the play’s time shifts seem effortless.“It’s a perfect fit for Commonwealth Shakespeare and our celebration of language,” he says.
Maler says he was introduced to Wallace’s work when he was an artistic associate for new plays at the American Repertory Theater, which produced “Slaughter City.” “That play, like all of Naomi’s work, was so vivid and visceral,” Maler says.
When she was commissioned to adapt Wharton’s novel in the 1990s, Wallace says the challenge of the time shifts and the characters’ interior monologues became theatrical opportunities.
“The stage is the only place where the past can come alive simultaneous with the present,” she says. “We do that by casting four actors to play two characters — the two friends as teenagers, and then as young men reuniting in the aftermath of the war.” Maxim Chumov and Spencer Hamp play the younger versions of Al and Birdy, respectively; Keith White and Will Taylor play their older counterparts.
Explaining how the older and younger actors related to each other, Maler says “rehearsals are spent balancing the hidden wisdom of young actors with the authority of experienced actors, while still finding the vulnerability in each.”
Wallace says her plays are character-driven, but she adds, “The characters live in the world. You can’t help but notice the disparities between what we tell children is possible, like the American dream, and then create barriers that prevent so many people from achieving it.”
A comic turn from Scheer
Off the Grid Theatre Company founder Alexis Scheer doesn’t waste time. While still an undergraduate at Boston Conservatory (she graduated in 2014), she founded the company to produce her own stage adaptation of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” quickly followed by “Equus” in a storefront space in the South End, an award-winning production of “Blasted,” a commissioned play by four Boston playwrights called “The Weird,” and last fall, her own play, “Our Dear Dead Drug Lord.”
As part of her master’s degree in playwriting at Boston University, Boston Playwrights’ Theatre and BU’s College of Fine Arts School of Theatre are now producing Scheer’s “Laughs in Spanish” (Feb. 21-March 3), described as a comedy about art and success, and mothers and daughters. The play is set in the Wynwood Arts District in Miami in the midst of Art Basel, a premiere art showcase, and adds another layer of complexity by filtering it through Scheer’s Latina perspective on the action. For tickets ($10-$35), call 866-811-4111 or go to www.bu.edu/bpt.
A Parker premiere at Gloucester
Gloucester Stage Company is hosting the world premiere of Boston playwright, actress, and director Jacqui Parker’s “Wrestling With Freedom” Friday and Saturday. The drama explores the friendship between two freed slaves, Revolutionary-era poet Phillis Wheatley and Obour Tanner, and is based on letters the two women wrote to each other. Parker’s play centers on the women’s hopes and dreams in the early days of the abolition movement. For tickets ($15-$25), call 978-281-4433 or go to www.gloucesterstage.com.
Presented by Commonwealth Shakespeare Company. At the Carling-Sorenson Theater, Babson College, Wellesley, Feb. 27-March 17. Tickets $15-$50, 866-811-4111, www.commshakes.org
Terry Byrne can be reached at email@example.com.