One of Wallace's better ideas in taking Wharton's disturbing tale of schizophrenia to the stage is that Birdy and Al are played by two actors each: We see them as grown men trying to resume their lives after World War II (Ted Schneider and Adam Rothenberg, respectively) and as the inner schoolboys whom the older men carry around with them (Peter Stadlen and Zachary Knighton, respectively). Wallace effectively switches from the boys' adolescence, when Birdy develops a need to become a bird and the abused Al is willing to indulge his friend's iron whims, to manhood, when Birdy is institutionalized at a military mental ward in Kentucky because he thinks he's completed the transition to winged creature and Al -- now a sergeant -- has been charged with bringing his chum back to earth, as it were.
Wallace's concerns are, as Wharton's were, what becomes of psychologically damaged boys when they mature, especially after they've been further traumatized by war. To put forth the dilemma, she presents scenes in which the boys go adventuring -- usually when young Birdy is, as it were, trying his wings. These sequences often end in predictable but not daunting failure. Alternately, Wallace shows us Al -- sometimes goaded, sometimes chided by the stern Army psychiatrist Doctor White (Richard Bekins) -- increasingly frustrated in his efforts to get through to his uncommunicative friend. Al does get Birdy to respond, but that turn of events doesn't necessarily lead to a benign resolution.
As boys, Birdy and Al are very different. The former is a distant lad uninterested in socializing with peers; the latter is a compulsive body builder, one of those potential bullies who would more likely pick on Birdy than befriend him. But Al is so solicitous of his pal that he even coaches Birdy on dating girls, at one point forcing the reluctant boy into a test kiss. The adult Al, who hasn't seen Birdy in many years, is determined enough to draw him back from the clinical catatonia that he feeds him as a mother bird feeds a chick: mouth to mouth.
Wallace succeeds is in creating out of Wharton two figures believably in extremis. Birdy's obsession has a kind of magnificence, and much of the dialogue with which he explains his attraction is sleekly poetic. (He's like Alan Strang, the boy obsessed with horses in Equus; in his practically mythic need to fly, he also conjures Icarus.) When, as a kid, Birdy builds himself metal wings and runs aviation experiments of a sort that apparently never occurred to the more practical Wilbur and Orville Wright, he's a compelling figure. He remains compelling as a soldier cowering like a wounded pigeon in hospital corners, unable or refusing to speak. Al, who eventually admits to having been repeatedly beaten by his father, is commanding for different reasons: He has grown up unable to control a lightning-quick temper that brings him to assault officers on more than one occasion, yet he can't suppress his loyalty to a friend and his need to help heal him.
In her depiction of a very particular friendship, Wallace has a handle on its dynamics. Or has she? Even a brief summary of the Birdy plot hints at one of the play's underlying themes: repressed homosexual desire. But as the drama unfolds, Wallace seems increasingly reluctant to dare speak its name. From an early age, Birdy and Al are shown as denying something about themselves: Birdy denies his humanity while Al initially won't fess up to his father's cruelty. When they come out the other side of World War II, both act out their repressions.
While the punchy piece pulls its toughest punch, suggesting only at the denouement an escape to something better that Birdy and Al might undertake, there's nothing lacking in the production. Riccardo Hernandez's set, featuring scaffolding that suggests cages, is rendered in shades of pigeon gray. Jill BC Du Boff's sound design includes the frantic, frightening flapping of birds' wings. Fight designer J. Allen Suddeth takes care that the on-stage wrangling is convincing. Gabriel Berry's period clothes are right, although the Army outfits lack the kind of press that officers and enlisted men would insist on in these situations. Scott Zielinski's lighting and the ubiquitous David Van Tieghem's music also lend credence to the aviary environment.
Far from the least of the contributions to the show's magnetism is the acting. Stadlen, slight and dark-haired, plays the young Birdy with the proper tremulous air. He's bird-like in the sense that he's simultaneously fragile and strong. (Stadlen's bio notes that he's a third-generation actor; if this means that he's the grandson of Allen Swift and the son of Lewis J. Stadlen, then the origins of his talent are evident.) Schneider, who bears little resemblance to Stadlen, spends much of his stage time trembling and hopping about on his arms and legs with nimble affect. When he finally speaks, his agitation continues to be moving and true.
Rothenberg as the older Al has a potent physical presence; so does Knighton, who does look like Rothenberg might have looked 10 or so years ago. Both actors suggest the powder-keg quality that Al is meant to possess, and it's frightening to behold. Bekins does well by the inexplicably unpleasant Dr. White and Bougere packs grit into Renaldi, particularly when he tells Al what gumption is required of conscientious objectors.
Birdy premiered in England in 1997 and was presented by the Philadelphia Theatre Company in 1998. The play has flown around a bit but has yet to slip its tether and soar, though it comes close to doing so in this fine production.