We don’t witness any bird attacks in Curio Theatre Company’s unnerving production of THE BIRDS. Unlike Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 movie, based with a similar looseness upon the same Daphne du Maurier novella, this adaptation by master Irish playwright Conor McPherson finds its horror in the claustrophobic relationships between its four characters.
Strangers Diane (Aetna Gallagher) and Nat (Rich Bradford) find refuge in an abandoned house (another outstanding set by Paul Kuhn). Outside, flocks of birds appear every six hours, killing any person they encounter. Civilization has collapsed; the pair are surviving as best they can when the much younger Julia (Tessa Kuhn) joins them.
McPherson gives each character a troubled backstory, revealed in naturally paced drips. Julia protests that she doesn’t want to disrupt Diane and Nat’s arrangement. “We have to look after each other,” Diane assures her, “and if someone else came we’d have to look after them.” Many lines in the script drip with ironic foreboding; we suspect this reassurance may be premature.
McPherson’s dialog and interrelations are characteristically naturalistic in THE BIRDS. Director Elizabeth Carlson-Guerin recognizes that for the sinister work to take hold we need to believe in the characters and their predicament. Her cast (Ken Openaker completes the quartet in a brief, moving appearance) successfully underplay the drama; their emotional outbursts feel deserved and real.
Robin Stamey’s lighting remains ominously subdued almost to the point of under-illumination. Chris Sannino’s sound design comes in portentous wails and the building sound of attacking birds. But it’s not these birds which provide the play with its satisfying terror. The horror comes in the unseen: an armed farmer in a house across the lake, hints of the supernatural (who does this better than McPherson?), building tension among the characters.
Nature itself might conspire against us; hell is still other people.
[4740 Baltimore Avenue] October 5-30, 2016; curiotheatre.org.