WELLESLEY – “Are you crazy, Birdy?’’
A uniformed soldier in his early 20s, his head bandaged from a combat injury, poses that query to a war-traumatized young man in hospital pajamas who is crouched on the floor in a birdlike posture, folded into himself and seemingly lost in some interior world.
It’s not the first time that Al, the soldier, has wrestled with that question when it comes to Birdy, his longtime friend, but the stakes now are far more urgent — for both of them.
That scene in Steven Maler’s intimate, poetic, and beautifully realized Commonwealth Shakespeare Company production of “Birdy’’ underscores what makes this drama so stirring: its illustration that, as with love, there can be a mysterious chemistry to friendship, a force of attraction not comprehensible to anyone standing outside that circle of two.
Certainly there are stretches of overripe dialogue in Naomi Wallace’s 1997 stage adaptation of William Wharton’s 1979 novel, but on balance the playwright skillfully captures the depth and evolution of a complex and moving relationship between a pair of dissimilar young men who find, lose, and find each other again, under radically different circumstances.
Maler draws compelling and varied performances from his cast of six; as Birdy, Will Taylor delivers the single most gripping performance in the production without saying a word. The director also deals adroitly with the shifting atmospherics of “Birdy,’’ from its dreamlike aura to its intense one-on-one confrontations, with a few joltingly sudden bursts of action.
(Disclosure: “Birdy’’ is coproduced by Spring Sirkin, who supports the Elliot Norton Awards given out by the Boston Theater Critics Association, of which I am a member.)
Wallace’s adaptation restores the story to the World War II-era setting of the novel (the 1984 film version starring Matthew Modine and Nicolas Cage updated it to the Vietnam era). “Birdy’’ unfolds in alternating scenes that are set in the years just before and just after the war. We see an eccentric, hyperactive, bird-obsessed Young Birdy (Spencer Hamp) and a restless, athletic Young Al (Maxim Chumov) as teenagers in a Philadelphia suburb. Often squatting in that birdlike posture, Young Birdy studies the behavior of canaries and pigeons and even creates a pair of aluminum wings, determined to fly himself. Though he identifies with birds more than with his fellow humans, he forges a bond with Young Al. For all his outward confidence, Young Al carries the (quite literal) scars of brutal beatings at home by his father. There are homoerotic overtones in the relationship between the pair, especially when Young Al teaches Young Birdy how to seduce a girl.
The boys clamber, swing, and slide about a massive set (superbly designed by Clint Ramos) that consists of a three-tiered scaffolding bedecked with flotsam and jetsam suggesting the improvisatory chaos of their young lives: broken windowpanes, bedsprings, a trash can, a birdcage. Already, Young Birdy is beginning to escape into a fantasy world; already, Young Al is both intrigued by the way his friend can detach himself from earthbound reality to soar into the realm of the imagination and aware that it could eventually sunder their friendship.
Alternating with those episodes are scenes set just after the war in which adult Al (Keith White) is desperately trying to help Birdy (Taylor), confined to the psychiatric ward of a military hospital in Kentucky. Unhinged by the war, Birdy has essentially retreated into the persona of a baby bird in the nest. A haughty and cruel psychiatrist (played by Steven Barkhimer) has threatened that Birdy will be “shipped to an asylum’’ unless he makes progress, so Al has to coax his silent friend back to some semblance of sanity, and fast. Al’s ally in that endeavor is a conscientious-objector nurse (portrayed by Damon Singletary.)
Though the connection between White’s Al and the younger version of the character is sometimes hard to see, White ably communicates the sense that Al’s efforts to save Birdy are rooted not just in loyalty and friendship but in a desire to somehow snatch a redemptive victory for humanity out of the horrors he saw during the war. That profound urge is communicated in one of the production’s most remarkable scenes: When Birdy refuses to eat, Al feeds him like a bird would, dripping food from his mouth into that of his friend. Later, when Al succumbs to despair, Birdy emerges briefly from his reverie and studies Al with the focused intensity of a mother bird worried about her young.
On levels spoken and not, the friends still share a common avian vocabulary. Maybe Birdy is indeed crazy, but it’s the kind of craziness that Al just might need to survive.
Adapted by Naomi Wallace from the novel by William Wharton
Directed by Steven Maler
Production by Commonwealth Shakespeare Company presented by BabsonARTS at Carling-Sorenson Theater, Sorenson Center for the Arts, Babson College, Wellesley. Through March 17. Tickets $50. 781-239-5880, commshakes.org/production/birdy/
Don Aucoin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter@GlobeAucoin.