Encore Michigan

Premiere: Puzzle Piece’s ‘Bird’ explores disability and race

Review April 23, 2017 Tanya Gazdik

FERNDALE — It is said that art imitates life. That phrase couldn’t hold truer than for a play like Bird, which is inspired, and partially based, on true events.

Playwright Kristin Andrea Hanratty heard part of a news story on the radio and was intrigued enough to look for written stories on the topic. What followed is a serious drama that leaves the audience questions about why disabled people are sometimes scapegoated and why certain activities are thought to be the norm in poor, mainly black-populated neighborhoods.

The story revolves around DD (Dan Johnson) a young man in his 20s who is disabled because of a car accident when he was a teen. DD lives with his grandmother, who tries her best to protect him, but he is an adult after all –at least in appearance.

One night when the summer heat is sweltering, he leaves the house and encounters Leo (Sergio Mautone), who is new to the neighborhood and is fixing up a storefront on an almost vacant street. DD and Leo become fast-friends, but DD’s grandmother (Karen Minard) disapproves and forbids him from “working” for Leo or going to the store. All the while, DD is haunted by “Fifteen” (Alex Morrison) his pre-accident self who still lives on in his mind. The alter-ego at times taunts him, at other instances, is a comfort.

Without giving away the ending or even too much of the storyline, it’s obvious this is a serious, poignant and thought-provoking drama. It is somewhat dark but it is well written and there are a few instances of understated humor. At just over one hour, the one-act play, directed by D.B. Schroeder with Joseph Sfair as stage manager, moves fast. The events unfold quickly but the pacing seems appropriate.

The actors are extremely well cast. Johnson’s portrayal of a disabled person is thoughtful, and is played with no cliches. He’s an extremely gifted actor who will have you believing he truly is disabled very quickly (But he’s most definitely not. If you stick around for the actor’s and director’s talk after the show, you might hear about his research that went into playing such a character.) Morrison, who at 18 is just starting his professional career, is perfectly cast as the younger DD who lives on in the disabled man’s mind. His portrayal leaves you feeling sad for what could have been if DD had not been in the accident. As his grandmother recalls, he was “smart as a whip” and had enormous potential.

Minard is the quintessential grandmother, concerned and strict while still very loving. She knows protecting her grandson from the evils of the world is a losing battle, especially the older he becomes, but she tries nonetheless. Her confrontation with Leo is completely believable. Mautone is very convincing as the up-to-no-good biker come businessman whose moral compass is clearly lacking.

The set is sparse but adequate for the one-act. The play revolves around the grandmother’s home and the store and both are represented on opposite halves. The theatre is intimate and the small audience sits just a few feet from the action. Sounds of the inner city help set the mood. Costumes by Laura Heikkinen have an authentic feel. DD’s omnipresent track suit seems like a natural for the character.

One quick note on the title. “Bird” is the name DD has given the neighborhood stray cat he has befriended. The cat doesn’t meow, he makes a noise similar to a bird, thus the name. DD is drawn to the cat and saves his food to give him, even though it angers his non-sentimental grandmother, who clearly fails to understand what the cat represents to DD. In a world where he is constantly judged and stigmatized, the cat is one creature who accepts him just as he is.

There are lessons we can learn from Bird the cat, and also from DD. Things are not always what they appear to be. And sometimes the best intentions are not enough to save the day.

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Week of 12/4/2023

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