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Come Fly With Me: Laurie K. Schroeder and Lance Gardner play a couple coping with anger and forgiveness.

Flight Risks

A fragile couple confront past pains in Pear Avenue's 'What the Birds Carry'

By Marianne Messina

WHEN IT COMES to psychology, we humans are just plain messy. A lot of theater these days wants to shy away from that fact. Not so with the new play by Elizabeth Gjelten, What the Birds Carry, developed with the Bootstrap Foundation and the Pear Avenue Theatre. In the play, MJ (Christine Rodgers) and T (Avondina Willis), a couple who haven't seen each other in the 20 years since their ugly breakup, come together when T is in the hospital close to death.

The play is thick with relationship issues, complicated further by the fact that T, as a Special Forces Vietnam vet, suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. With all that, the play works hard not to moralize. When hospital chaplain Father Thomas (magnetically played by Ian Walker, who helped develop the role) gets through to MJ that forgiveness is about letting go of anger, she asks him how to let go. "I don't know," is his replies. (What a relief—a cleric without all the answers.)

Unfolding the (incidentally biracial) relationship by way of flashbacks (in which Lance Gardner plays young T and Laurie K. Schroeder plays young MJ), Gjelten has peeled away the infatuation that swallows up most love stories to show us the real fabric of attraction. T is poetic, observant, a trickster; MJ is logical, driven and a walking savior complex. When she warns that birds carry "disease, lice," he counters with "feathers, flight."

When we first see the couple, MJ is at an angry simmer and the ailing T is a cheery playboy with a salesman's knack for getting around people quickly; yet, as the play takes us back, and we see T's dark side, the dynamic almost reverses. Though What the Birds Carry could be faulted for timidity in keeping the ugliest of T's alcoholic, postwar stress behavior offstage—even the violent breakup scene is presented as surreal, substituting sound effects (Craig Koozer) for action—psychologically the play is fairly ruthless. At one point MJ admits her attraction to T's war horror: "How I craved those stories and the dark."

On the compact two-zoned stage set (set designer Patricia Tyler with director Virginia Reed), a hospital bed to the left dominates a very literal present; a three-tiered platform to the right serves as the abstract site for multiple locations, from homes to golf courses, mostly in the past. It neatly echoes the interplay between our concrete world on one hand and the inchoate mind stuff from which we create it on the other.

The older characters remain onstage during the flashback scenes, passively watching, which could get crowded. But the Reed/Tyler design opens up the Pear's back wall with flowing, high-reaching backdrops that make the eye travel upward. This expanse also gives the sense that some other quality—time?—oversees or overrides our small human dramas. Rodgers and Willis give exceptional performances. Rodgers' MJ walks on glass and Willis' transformation from playboy to sickness makes you yearn in such a powerful way to have the playboy back that it smells like forgiveness. There's so much going on in this play. Gjelten gives us a good dollop of poetic language (more in the first act than the second) and a linguistic experiment or two. Plus there's plenty of humor: "You used to be a better liar than me," says MJ. "Nah," says T, "you believed better." Anyone who takes theater seriously will certainly find their own tasty treats in this production, hold the syrup.

What the Birds Carry, a Pear Avenue Theatre production, plays Thursday-Saturday at 8pm, Sunday at 2pm through July 24 at the Pear, 1220 Pear Avenue, Unit K., Mountain View. Tickets are $10-$20. (650.254.1148)

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From the July 13-19, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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