Going into Bridgehead Studio in Alameda—practically across the street from the Nob Hill Market on Blanding—the newly-collaged doorway, a real portal now, is the first thing to catch attention. Then, inside, is the “Isolated Beauty” exhibit, featuring works in different visual media which parallel the theme of The Hermit Bird, the original play by John Byrd that Virago Theatre Co. is premiering at the studio. (The band Pike County will play before this Friday’s performance—also thematic to the region in which the play is set.)
A play about a dysfunctional—and strange—family, set in a trailer home, staged in a warehouse studio... “I grew up in West Virginia,” comments Byrd in the program. “I watched a lot of television. I liked television because it didn’t resemble anything or anyone that I knew.... At Harvard I learned of the existence of Southern dramatists.... Their plays, while rich and elegant in cadence, weren’t the stories of anyone I knew. I wanted to tell the stories of the people who never got stories told about them.”
Virago featured The Hermit Bird in their “Visions and Voices” program of readings of new plays a couple years ago. With this production, Michael Storm (directing for the company for the first time after serving as fight coordinator) and Virago put the play they’ve developed with the author out into the world—the world The Hermit Bird’s characters seem lost in. It isn’t Southern Gothic or its offshoots, but uncanny nonetheless. And it isn’t an update on God’s Little Acre. Instead, it’s an unusually sensitive telling of what goes on just beneath the surface, behind the back door, in the unscheduled moments of a family living in this rude place, living in a way that’s usually the butt of jokes (and there’s plenty of humor in The Hermit Bird) or strung out on the line as pathos for a tearjerker.
In The Hermit Bird, the usual simile is reversed: Rain—any kind of water—flows like tears.
We see Missy (stunningly enacted by Molly Holcomb), dancing all alone in “the crick,” or the rain, possessed by water, the weather she seems to predict or remember precisely like an idiot savant. A Sensitive (in an older meaning of that term), childlike, she’s watched over closely by her parents.
Missy also seems to mirror, to crystalize the contradictory nature of her parents’ menage. Her slack, sweet-talking father seems to understand her. A good old boy mourning quietly for his youth, his talent is to smooth things over. Virago co-founder Robert Paine-Lundy is very impressive in the role, delineating Roger’s laissez-faire character.
Linda, Missy’s mom, is the responsible party, cross with her daughter and husband for adding to her work load through their obliviousness. Linda loses herself in her collection of ceramic birds, bought off TV (including the bird of the title). They are touchstones of her own lost beauty and young love, her hopes to get out, to move to the California revealed to her in televsion specials and in the pages of glossy magazines. Angela Dant, another Virago founder, is both precise and forceful as a frustrated woman, wistful under a no-nonsense exterior.
Missy not only reels off the weather from the remote past in response to her father playfully shooting dates at her from an almanac, but, in a rush, recites TV shows verbatim along with her mother’s commentary on them, taking it as gospel, the way the world is—or should be.
Into this insular scene comes Tom, local boy who’s known Missy—and apparently idealized her, as something different—since they were kids. He’s watched her dancing alone in the stream and thinks of her all the time. Tom wants something else in his life after losing his family one by one, maybe a way out, or just this strange girl enshrined in loneliness in their isolated backwoods. Harold Pierce—who just played in another saga of familial dysfunctionality, James Keller’s excellent Leave of Absence at the City Club—performs very well again as a sincere young man obsessed with something he doesn’t understand, hesitant and awkward, but determined. There’s a simple yet subtle humor, a shade pathetic, then grotesque, to the nervous grin and big, helpless eyes of a young fellow capable in everything save when faced with ambiguity.
Different forms of that humor, that pathos, that grotesqueness, serve as the chiaroscuro of this otherwise brown study of a chamber play, trailer for chamber, lit by TV, quenched by blackout and flash flood.
It’s an unusual play, something truly original, which Byrd has—with Virago’s help—extracted from his own past and personal grief. The dialogue is nicely long-limbed, with relaxed rhythms that counterpoint catastrophe perfectly.
One criticism, a quibble maybe, in light of what’s unusual here: Those long lines of dialogue and timing sometimes get choked up by the author attempting to add it all up, to make it all make sense, to make the pieces fit together—in effect, to satisfy all sensibilities at once. That also allows some things to become too vague, or change tone abruptly, as with Roger’s startling aggressiveness when Tom visits. It makes sense, but maybe it would make more left alone, unresolved, as with Missy, who is—and is not—the inverse image of her mother, reflected in a mirror, or water. There’s something truly mythic—not the myth of psychological quest, but what’s unspoken, fragmentary, pieces of a whole that can’t quite fit back together—something of the essence of John Byrd’s vision. Inelegant, perhaps, in its setting, but enriched by simple cadence.
THE HERMIT BIRD
Presented by Virago Theatre Co. at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Bridgehead Studio, 2516 Blanding Ave., Alameda. Pike County bluegrass band plays at 7:15 p.m. Friday. $15 advance, $20 at door Students/seniors, $12 advance, $15 at door. 865-6237. viragotheatre.org.