On the surface, Al and Birdy are just two regular teenage boys wanting to dodge the harsh realities of adulthood. World War II looms menacingly before them. Their parents—lost in their own daily survival and prone to violent outbursts—only make the future that much more terrifying. So what if Birdy spends much of his day observing the pigeons in his bedroom aviary or experimenting with the anatomy and physiology of human flight? He’s still Al’s best buddy—a designation that means something to both of them, a patch of tenderness in a world that cares nothing about their private fantasies. As life hurtles them forward to the battlefield, the two reach out to each other with vows of friendship that could be mistaken for romantic love if only such thoughts were thinkable for them.
Such is the adolescent background of Naomi Wallace’s beautiful adaptation of William Wharton’s novel about a pair of characters who grow up to become psychological casualties—one of combat (shell-shocked Birdy believes he’s been transformed into a bird), both of a culture that denies men the expression of their deepest feelings. Fluidly moving between hometown past and military-hospital present, the play connects the trauma of war with the damage of masculine socialization. Though minor in key and marred by an abrupt ending, Birdy is a fully imagined piece of writing, searching in its politics and stabbing at times in its poetry.
Director Lisa Peterson’s evocatively spare production elicits well-drawn performances from her leads. Zachary Knighton and Peter Stadlen lyrically incarnate the fugitive freedoms of the teenage Al and Birdy. Adam Rothenberg and Ted Schneider are equally convincing as their hospitalized adult counterparts, even if the resolution scene that brings Birdy back to his human senses is melodramatically pitched. The resonant bond these two protagonists share can apparently survive any mishap.