Birdie Blue By Cheryl L West, directed by Chuck Smith, Seattle Rep through 16 December
So the past Sunday, we (me, Lovely Bride, Lovely Bride's Mom) went to the Rep where we were in a half-full house for Birdie Blue. Half-full? That's a little unusual.
Part of it I can blame on the Seattle Only-Mildly-Charitable Marathon (Which cut the connections between I-5 and the Seattle Center, such that I had to detour through Wallingford to get there), but I think part of it is that this is an odd duck of a play for the holiday season, a sad and kinda painful production.
Birdie Blue (Velma Austin) is an old woman in Chicago who is tending for her now-demented husband (William Hall, Jr.). Over the course of the play she slips into her memories and maybe into her delusions. The walls between what is real and what is memory, what is delusion and what is truth are weak at this stage, and time and place slips around. This feeling is aided by a brace of characters played by Sean Blake, and a set design which is not particularly helpful for determining the sense of place (is the window hanging at stage left existing in the real world, the past, or just the imagination?).
But to a greater degree, the play itself frustrates, moving between the various times with little warning, you are left putting the pieces together on the fly. When Blake first appears as playing a child, is he Birdie's child from an early marriage or a younger incarnation of Hall's mentally-disabled adult? He's the former, but you are wandering lost for a little while. Non-linear movement adds to the frustrations, and I am still trying to pin down what characters were where in Birdie's life.
But the acting is strong, much stronger than the play itself. Sean Blake in particular gets the chance to rock the house with a beautiful voice, while William Hall Jr. moves between sweet reason for living to wracked shell of a man. Velma Austina is masterful as Birdie herself, by turns damning and redeeming herself. And while the ending is telegraphed like Western Union (she packing for a trip, continual mention of the local funeral home), but when it comes it still twists the knife and it hurts. But that hurt is from the force of the acting, not the script itself - in weaker hands it would fall flat.
Oddly enough, the play sees thematic competition from the very same building, where The Cook is still playing. Here we have another strong ethnic woman moves through the course of her life with strong political, historical, and racial overlays. The acting is just as strong in both (the REP is blessed with strong female leads), but the underpinning isn't there in the writing itself. Add to this fact that the Intiman, just next door, is running its Christmas powerhouse, Black Nativity, and you've got three productions competing in a similar niche.
So good marks for the courage to go into a crowded field, and kudos to a small, passionate, incredibly talented cast that makes the play a heartbreaker. But the writing is the weakest link.
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