Angry Birds in The Thrush and the Woodpecker

Jay Yamada

Mutation and descent: these two words are central to the imaginative life of Steve Yockey’s The Thrush and the Woodpecker. The play begins with a family fight, between a mother and a son. Brenda (Stacy Ross) stares out at the morning light sipping a mug of coffee. A sleepy-eyed Noah (Adam Magill) enters the living room in pajamas and a bed head. He innocently asks for coffee. Her extended reply is a caustic monologue composed entirely of vitriol and invective.

Ross, as Brenda, gives a finely controlled performance. Both she and Magill could have overdone this first scene. She could have come across as shrill; he, whiny. Instead, their rapport and the rhythms of the dialogue establishes a credible relationship between them. This is how a disappointed mother speaks to her son. In particular, a mother who understands that actions have consequences.

Noah, a senior in college, has just been expelled for vandalism. He was an astronomy major holding on tightly to an activist stance against light pollution. He is breathtakingly naive exclaiming, “I didn’t think I’d get caught,” not understanding the short or long term repercussions of breaking things that don’t belong to him. The stars will, of course, take on a symbolic value as the play continues, but they’re a distant, recessive metaphor. The dominant one belongs to the birds.

Brenda’s house sits on an isolated road in the country. As soon as Noah enters the scene, an intermittent knocking starts at the front door. He opens it once but nobody’s standing on the other side. His mother explains, somewhat feebly, that it’s the sound of woodpeckers. She supposes they like the taste of the wood, or they don’t like it; she’s not sure which it is. Whatever the meaning, it’s clearly a portent: Someone is going to come knocking, and they’ll want to get inside.

While Brenda runs an errand in town, Noah, now dressed for the day, hears the sound of knocking again and decides to open the door. Enter Róisín (Fontana Butterfield). It’s worth noting at this point in the play what a precise and recognizable world the playwright has created. We’re in the midst of what looks to be a small and temporary family crisis. A child makes a mistake, repents and the parent forgives. Everyone moves on. But there’s something about those birds, their odd calls echoing around the house coupled with that insistent knocking.

Yockey has written that rare thing: a play that’s economical in exposition. He quickly and concisely provides a recognizable context for the audience. At the same time, he immediately creates a prickly emotional atmosphere. From the beginning, the characters are off-balance but he carefully withholds the reasons why. Then he raises the dramatic temperatures of his characters, slowly but incrementally. You can feel that something is at stake, and whatever that mysterious thing is, it propels the play forward.

Róisín — pronounced Rosheen— is that thing. She stands on the doorstep like a vampire needing permission to enter a human home. Noah hesitates before inviting her in; he senses something strange about the woman and her halting manners. But he’s feeling contrite about his recent troubles and doesn’t trust his instincts. To all outward appearances, she presents herself as an ordinary woman, the same age as his mother. In fact, she tells him she’s an old friend of Brenda’s. Noah makes her a cup of tea and they sit down together, waiting for Brenda to return.

Butterfield has the complex task of letting Róisín’s true character escape from containment, and she does so expertly. Yockey writes a fable for Róisín in the shape of a monologue. It conflates her emotional life with the story she tells Noah. It’s clear from the tenor of her voice that she’s communicating something beyond his understanding, but certainly not beyond his mother’s. When Brenda arrives back at the house, she will face a reckoning with her own youthful mistakes. She’ll figure out abruptly that it’s Róisín who has brought the birds with her, the descent of woodpeckers, and that after all these years, her many disguises, or mutations, will no longer cover her tracks. Róisín’s madness and the birds are as one, and she contains multitudes.

The Thrush and the Woodpecker, through Aug. 27 at The Custom Made Theatre Co., 533 Sutter St., 415-798-2682. 415-798-2682.

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