Something was different at the Santa Paula Theater Center. The welcome was warm, but subdued. There was no pre-show greeting, just a reminder to turn off cell phones and a mention of how to escape, er, exit in case of emergency. There was something foreboding in the air. The keen observer could spot splatters of white on the wall and mutilated feathers in the corner. The audience quietly took their seats and waited.
And then it struck. Darkness, followed by the sound of wings. The flutter of birds all around, growing into a frenzy of screeching, squawking and smashing into walls. Then it receded into silence, almost as unsettling as the sound of fury. When the lights came up we were in the company of Diane (the wonderful Kathleen Bosworth), who spoke to us calmly and coolly about the terror that has gripped her small New England town. Birds are attacking and killing at a terrifying clip. Diane is holed up in an abandoned farmhouse with a stranger named Nat (the equally great Taylor Kasch). Listening to him call out in his sleep, Diane suspects that Nat has secrets — but so does everyone in this well-devised production directed by Jeff G. Rack.
Thrown together by fate, Diane and Nat must work together to survive as the world outside literally goes to the birds. The only other person that they know is still alive is the mysterious farmer (played with turns of menace and humanity by Allan Noel) who lives across the lake. But is he friend or foe?
As the situation grows more dire, fellow humans may prove to be as dangerous as the birds. News on the radio tells of the worsening terror, and Nat and Diane must decide whether to go to a town a few hours away. Can they get there before the birds return? What will they find? Sanctuary or hell? Just as they begin to acclimate to their strange new normal, a young woman (the seductive Juliana Acosta) appears. We soon learn that, especially in a thriller, three is definitely a crowd.
Playwright Conor McPherson based his taut thriller on the novella by Daphne du Maurier, which was also the inspiration for the classic Hitchcock film. Du Maurier set her story in a coastal English town after World War II, and the birds symbolize the German planes that bombarded England during the Blitz. McPherson sets his play in New England, and director Rack explains that it represents our “chaotic and unsettling times,” with nature acting as the balancer.
The talented cast and crew create an experience that is deliciously chilling. Incredible sound effects and original music by Joe “Sloe” Slawinski ratchet up the tension. The set, designed by Rack, and the lighting, designed by Gary Richardson, evoke an atmosphere that goes from quaint home to house of doom, depending on everyone’s state of mind. Costumes by Barbara Pędziwiatr strike the right chord, looking like Mad Max meets J. Crew. The props by Gail Heck take on surprising symbolic heft.
Go see The Birds and don’t be surprised if, watching the skies, you pick up the pace as you walk to your car.
The Birds is onstage through July 30 at the Santa Paula Theater Center, 125 S. Seventh St., Santa Paula. For tickets and more information, call 525-4645 or visit www.santapaulatheatercenter.org.