War and Friendship :: Playwright Naomi Wallace on Her Stage Adaptation of 'Birdy'

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Thursday February 14, 2019

Playwright Naomi Wallace — recipient of a raft of prizes and accolades, among them an Obie Award and a MacArthur "Genius Grant" Fellowship — has nearly twenty plays to her credit, among them "One Flea Spare," "The Inland Sea," and a 1997 adaptation of William Wharton's 1978 anti-war novel "Birdy."

It's this last opus that Commonwealth Shakespeare Company is bringing to Boston, with a production set to run Feb. 27 — March 17. Directed by Steven Maler, the production stars one of the favorites of the Boston stage, Steven Barkhimer, along with Will Taylor as Birdy and Keith White as Al. (Spencer Hamp and Maxim Chumov play younger versions of the characters.)

The material seems a good fit to Wallace, who has long been active in social justice causes, advocating for women in prison and human rights. (She was even, Wikipedia notes, questioned by Homeland Security after visiting Cuba in the days before the Obama administration.

The stage play is not related to the 1984 movie, directed by Alan Parker, that starred Nicholas Cage and Matthew Modine. That film moved the novel's setting to the Vietnam era, whereas in the play, as is the case with Wharton's novel, is set before and during World War II.

In both the novel and the film, the story centers on an unlikely pair of friends: Al Columbato is an average all-American boy; Birdy, his oddball friend, is highly intelligent and creative. When their wartime experiences leave them with PTSD, they deal with it in different ways. Birdy imagines a detailed avian system of philosophy, a lens through which comes to view the world. Al, meantime, sees his friend as having retreated into a strange kind of catatonia in which Birdy seems to be imitating a bird. Is Birdy truly crazy? Is he beyond Al's reach?

The novel explores the healing capacity of friendship, and the nature of friendship between men, themes that Wallace preserved when, in the 1990s, she was commissioned to adapt the novel into a stage work by, she told EDGE, "a British producing company."

EDGE had the pleasure of chatting with the Kentucky-born Wallace, who now resides in England but who was in Boston to see what CSC was doing with the work... which incidentally, Wallace revealed, is partially new, with a re-written ending.

EDGE: What drew you to William Wharton's novel in terms of turning it into a stage play?

Naomi Wallace: I was quite a young playwright then, and they gave me this opportunity to adapt it and I brought to them the idea of these two young men that the war [had impacted], but on stage, we would have their younger selves as well. They liked that idea.

EDGE: You seem to have a real interest in social justice issues. Did that figure into how you responded to the material and how you chose to treat the material?

Naomi Wallace: William Wharton wrote about war a lot, and I felt in tune with his exploration of what happens when we're sent another land to — to kill people, basically. That's what you do [in wartime]. How do we come back? And how do we maintain our humanity, or how it is damaged by destroying other people? What can save us? In this case, it's a friendship — an odd friendship between two young boys that gives them both meaning in their lives. It's what they go back to and they are trying to recover themselves after the traumas of war.

EDGE: It's interesting how one of those young men is kind of an oddball from the start, with his love of birds. He retreats to a different kind of psychological space to process his wartime experiences.

Naomi Wallace: Yes, and I appreciate how you talk about it, about him retreating to process it, because I think we have such an easy language [when] we talk about psychological damage and PTSD and the traumas of war. They're true, and they're clichés, but it's almost like a way to dismiss something without investigating it. Sometimes we may have to go crazy in order to find our sanity again in a different way. I think you're right in that Birdy retreats into being a bird in order to save himself, whereas the outside world looks at it as he's lost.

EDGE: You've chosen to stick with the novel's original World War II setting, instead of updating it to a more current conflict the way the movie did. Was there any thought about changing the play's setting in terms of the time in which the story occurs?

Naomi Wallace: You know, when I read the novel I knew about the movie. I saw the movie at some point, but I never held on to it — I didn't know a commission was going to come my way. I made sure I didn't watch it again [when that commission was made]. But when I read Wharton's novel I thought, "I want to set it where he envisioned it, in the Second World War."

Hearing it now, it's a play that floats above time. It's still about friendship, it's about love, it's about trying to find your way back home after you've let in more ways than one, It feels to me almost as pertinent to me today as it would have been when it was first published. [The setting] is not something that ages Wharton's novel — if anything, I think setting it in World War II releases it to be looked at in terms of the wars that are going on today.

EDGE: In that way, the book has some rarified company; that's true of war classics like "Johnny Got His Gun" and "All Quiet on the Western Front." Those works don't need to change their settings to still speak to us today.

Naomi Wallace: Yeah, I think sometimes we have the idea of, "We'll update it, it will be more meaningful." We certainly don't need to do that with Shakespeare. [A story] derives its meaning from its content and what's within it, not because of its setting — at least, for me. I mean, I have almost never written anything that's contemporary, anyway. I think sometimes when something's set in the past we can take a little distance from it and use our minds to understand, not just our emotions.

EDGE: Times are stressful right now, not just in the United States, but also in Britain, where you live. Can a play like this one help us process our feelings of trauma — our communal PTSD if you will — around what feels like a fractious period of upheaval?

Naomi Wallace: I have studied a lot about war, and I respect those terms. I respect you using them, but they're not terms that I would use, because I find that makes it too easy for us to talk about personal trauma. No, I think we need to get beyond that and ask ourselves why these things keep happening. Why are we involved in six or seven wars at the same time? The difference is that most of this is happening from the sky [with drones strikes rather than boots on the ground], so we're not having many Als and Birdys come home.But there are many Als and Birdys on the ground, under bombs, who are having the same experience. I would like to see us use our imaginations to see them, over there, under our bombs, to see that they are also the Als and Birdys of the world, and to care about them as much as we do our own people.

EDGE: It's obvious you feel strongly about this.

Naomi Wallace: I joked to my producer — I said, "Well, I won't bring up anything that's too [political]," but you asked.

When I was a young playwright I used to kind of rail when I was doing interviews, but now I'm more like, "You know what? I need to be inviting and let people come in and take what they learn from the play, or what they see from the play." But, yes, I don't think it's just about healing ourselves. It's about asking why we keep doing this over and over when we see it's so destructive for all of us.

EDGE: I read the novel a long time ago, and I'm not quite sure, but I think there might be some small roles for female characters. But this is a very male-centered story, and the stage version is all-male. Do you feel a story like this is best viewed through a completely male lens?

Naomi Wallace: You know, that doesn't concern me at all. Most of my plays are not that way; this is Wharton's story, so I went with what he wanted to do, which, the center of it is a friendship between two young men. But I think the play very much talks about gender roles, so although there are no roles for women on stage, it's very much talking about the gender stereotyping that goes on. It's funny, I was thinking about that question yesterday when I was looking at the cast — that Wharton is so much exploring gender stereotyping. Wharton was exploring what it means to be a man, and not even what that means as some essential thing, but what does our culture tell us about what it means to be a man.

I think Wharton tries to treat all of that, and I think the surprise is he brings you to a place to question what is courage? It might look very different from what we're taught. What is a real friendship? That, too, might be different from what we're told a friendship is, and I think he does that with war and he also does that with young men. What are the cultural signifiers that they grow up with? In what ways do they resist some of these ideas that are imposed upon them about how you need to be a certain kind of man?

EDGE: You've written many highly acclaimed plays, maybe most famous among them "One Flea Spare." Was it a surprise when an American company said they wanted to do a production of this particular play?

Naomi Wallace: My work is more taught in this country than produced. I supposed I am a self-described unpopular playwright, to a certain extent. I'm very grateful for the awards my work has received; that's given it some legitimacy. But I am not a playwright that regional theaters open their arms to. I never have been. Having said that, I keep my friends close and I appreciate any theater, I don't care if it's small or large, that is willing to look at work and produce it. So, yes, I am very excited to have "Birdy" in Boston, and that it's with the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company. I mean, that in itself sounds great! But also, because it's a [newly revised] script; it's had a lot of work on it. The new version is premiering here, and I am very excited about that.

EDGE: I didn't know that! Did you buff up the script for this production or had you already rewritten it at some earlier point?

Naomi Wallace: I have to give the credit to my irascible producer, Spring Sirkin, who always felt that the end wasn't as good as the rest of the play. She gnawed at me for quite a few years to work on the end. When she was able to find a production I said, "Okay, I'll rewrite it." That's not happened to me before, but she was absolutely right, and I am very grateful to her for pushing me to rewrite a large section at the end of the play. I give credit where credit is due! It was exciting to hear it read here because I kept heating all these different reverberations that make the play, in my eyes, so much better.

EDGE: Did coming back to work on it anew allow you to see things in the work you had written but perhaps not realized you had put into it?

Naomi Wallace: You mean because it had been so long? Well, you know, I tend to know my plays pretty well, but I had never heard the new version of the play until I heard it read yesterday. Hearing it read by actors is a very different way to experience it, so I did make a couple of very small changes to the text, but it was a great opportunity to her work that I had not heard before. So, yes, it's still "Birdy," it's still an adaptation, but it's changed enough that it feels quite new to me.

EDGE: That's a wonderful thing about theater; it really is a living art form in that it's not at all uncommon for a play to be revisited and revised by its author, more so than a book or a movie — though I guess director's cuts have become pretty common for movies now, it still seems more natural for a play to have such revisions even years or decades later.

Naomi Wallace: That's right.

EDGE Has director Steven Maler sought much input from you about the design elements or the direction of the play? Have you had discussions with him about what he's thinking?

Naomi Wallace: Yes — Steve and I met before this and we had an email communication. He really listens and he understands this play. I heard him speak in rehearsal today, and he's also very open to hearing what I have to say. I love that about Steve. It's like there's no ego in [the process]; it's about learning and listening. I know he's going to make his own choices, but it's so nice to work with a director who really listens and respects what the playwright has to say. That is very different from being subservient to a playwright; it's respecting that a playwright can have some important things that can be useful for the process.

EDGE: How nice that must be!


Naomi Wallace: It's very nice! It's not always that way.

EDGE: Even over and above hearing the new material for the first time in rehearsal, how does this production strike you? How are you liking it?

Naomi Wallace: I'm liking it already! We have an excellent cast, and I got to have a peek at the model for the set design and the costumes. I'm feeling good about things at this point. I've only been here for two days but I am feeling very hopeful! Like you said — it's a living art form. You just never know what you're going to get.

"Birdy" runs Feb. 27 — March 17 at Babson College's Sorenson Theater in Wellesley. For tickets and more information, please go to https://commshakes.org/production/birdy.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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