"The Birds," Conor McPherson's post-apocalyptic drama that opened Wednesday at the Guthrie, springs from the Daphne du Maurier story that also inspired Alfred Hitchcock's famous 1963 movie. But despite some in-the-moment performances, the one-act is less engaging than the film.
Henry Wishcamper's hokey production comes up short for several reasons. Designer Scott Edwards' layered sound score is overloud and overused. The screechy birds crashing into the house that is one of the last refuges of humanity sound suspiciously like people punching walls.
McPherson is a master craftsman whose writing is taut in "The Seafarer," "The Weir" and "Shining City." "The Birds" is well-structured but lacks arresting humanity and wit.
Strangers Nat (J.C. Cutler) and writer Diane (Angela Timberman) seek refuge from ravaging flocks of birds in a realistic country house (by set designer Wilson Chin, lit by Matthew Richards). Their resemblance to a family solidifies with the arrival of the feral young Julia (Summer Hagen), a lusty, dogged survivor who may or may not have killed someone. The fourth character is shotgun-toting farmer Tierney (Stephen Yoakam).
These actors deliver. Yoakam has the smallest role, but his Tierney, who enters wearing a welder's mask and monk-like poncho, is the most potent. There is a palpable moment on an ottoman when Tierney touches the hand of Diane. You can feel the desperation.
Timberman's Diane, a writer who keeps a diary, gives the play its authorial voiceover. Her entries further the narrative and give us insights into the characters. Timberman is terrific and revealing as she seeks to make sense of her life. Still, as she sat on the sofa to write a journal entry with her legs crossed, she seemed more like a writer at an artists' colony than someone worrying about being killed by the next wave of attacking birds.
Cutler's slightly crazed Nat is caught between the two women like the rope in a tug of war. It's a solid performance, but one that falls short of other recent roles by him.
And Hagen imbues wild-child Julia with an unsettling, can't-keep-still nervousness and silences pregnant with plotting.
Maybe it was bound to fall short. After all, it's easier for a film to follow a play than the other way around. Still, I held out hope for a better "Birds."