Photo by Billy Tompkins
High schooler Evan Wills likes birds, classmate Jenny Munroe and being left alone. Unfortunately for him, his life is a constant series of people bothering him, whether it's his mother trying to get him to open up to her new boyfriend or the bullies who pounce on any sign of weakness. But how long can Evan remain strong when everyone punishes him for the crime of being himself?
Rare Birds may be about teenage bullying, but this play is anything but childish. Written by Adam Szymkowicz and directed by Scott Ebersold, Red Fern Theatre Company's production plumbs the depths of how cruel teenagers can be. And that doesn't exclude protagonist Evan, either; though much of the play is seen from his point of view, this social misfit is often aggressive and antagonistic—even going so far as to accuse his mother's boyfriend of secretly having AIDS.
Needless to say, this is not your typical feel-good story about overcoming adversity. Rare Birds shares the real struggles people go through during high school, and beyond—Janet's odyssey of trying to move on with her life after her husband's death and find love again, despite the best efforts of her "problem child," is just as compelling as Evan's challenges. And as we learn by the end of the play, everyone is carrying more troubles with them than it first appears.
All together, it's a fascinating story, but also a rather bleak one. From Dylan's sinister scheming to convince Evan to kill himself, to Evan's torpedoing of his mother's relationship prospects, Rare Birds is a ticking time bomb that leaves audiences cringing more often than smiling. Even the birds in this play find their lives in danger, unable to become the symbol of freedom Evan wants them to be.
What sells this show, then, is the acting, a compelling performance by a core of six actors dedicated to telling every bit of truth in the script. Tracey Gilbert is a magnificent Janet, allowing us to witness her rage and despair about her relationship with her son slowly rise to the surface. Jake Glassman's Evan is the perfect blend of pitiable victim and entitled teenage jerk, while George Colligan's Dylan is an intriguing figure that may get at the heart of what it is a bully truly wants.
This production also features an ambitious technological component: not only are texting conversations projected on the back wall of the stage, but so are videos that Evan supposedly records in real time. Unfortunately, without actual livestreaming, the time delay between the live and recorded action proves distracting, and these videos are utilized at far too important moments to risk that lag. The actual texts, however, are an engaging scenic element and a welcome addition to the otherwise static setting of Evan's high school life.
It's also unclear by the end of the play if Rare Birds is just Evan's story, or an ensemble narrative. Having finally learned why the people in his life are behaving the way they are, Evan's world finally expands beyond the narrow confines of his own point of view, but many of those new elements are then left unresolved. Still, it's an emotional and fitting ending for Evan himself, and one that does justice to all of the trauma he has been through.
And regardless of how fun it may be, Rare Birds is a story the world needs to hear. We can only hope that someday it will be more of a fiction.
Rare Birds plays at the 14th Street Y through April 9.