When a play involves a lot of one particular element, such as the birds in A Map of Virtue now at convergence-continuum, the temptation is to employ many ornithological references and puns to spice up a review. However, that would do cheesy disservice to this play by Erin Courtney, which is often lyrical, chilling and ambitious. And even though it isn't entirely successful, that's no reason to demean it through "cheep" wordplay.
So, about the birds. This isn't an Alfred Hitchcock fever dream about a massive bird-pocalypse, but it is a supernatural nightmare of sorts that is populated by volleys of chirps, a defaced bird painting and a beak-masked creature packing heat.
Sarah and Mark see each other in a coffee shop, and although they never speak, they share an ethereal attraction. Plus, she sports a symmetrical tattoo of birds in flight and he has a tiny bird statue that she takes. This is the first of several coincidental interactions between the two, in wildly different places, although none of them are sexual: Sarah is married to Nate (Logan Smith) and Mark is in love with Victor (Eric Sever).
Structured around six virtues (Empathy, Honesty, etc.), playwright Courtney formally arranges the scenes like an arch, one half mirroring the other. At the center of all those tasty virtues is a chewy center of inexplicable evil, involving the boys' school headmaster (and child abuser) who first had the bird statue. Then there's the sociopaths, June and Ray, who kidnap Mark, Sarah and Nate. Peering out from a locked room, through the chain link-covered window, the captives view a seemingly ever-changing bonfire outside. Are there children burning out there?
Courtney deliberately keeps this tale oblique, with dead-end hallways and unopened doors befitting a dream state. But there are some theatrical devices that just don't work. For instance, the bird statue is a speaking role, played by Mike Majer with a frail sort of meadowlark innocence. But having the bird read stage directions and such doesn't further the mystery of the play as much as it just digresses.
Breaking up the script into the virtue parts never fully works either, since those weighty concepts take a painfully obvious sledgehammer to the fragile, often sublimely poetic words. Plus, there is the plethora of birds. What do these fowl represent: Fate? Love? Death? We hate the Baltimore Ravens?
Although somewhat uneven, the con-con cast under the direction of Clyde Simon creates riveting moments amid some of the playwright's excesses. Robert Hawkes is a disturbingly vulnerable villain as Ray, creepily tapping out random tunes on his Little Tykes xylophone. Playing counterpoint to his diabolical passivity is Lucy Bredeson-Smith, whose frozen visage could make Cruella de Vil break down in tears.
As Sarah, Kat Bi delivers her lines with crisp focus, but she never quite fashions a dimensional character one can believe in. And Jack Matuszewski starts and ends well as Mark, conveying the young man's platonic, shared bird fascination with Sarah. But in the middle scenes Matuszewski seems stiff and awkward, especially when trying to relate to Victor in a loving manner.
Not everyone will cotton to this play's semi-surreal attempt to grapple with morality, friendship and evil. But despite some overreaching, there are telling moments in the words and silences that this production offers. And that will have the naysayers eating crow. (Damn, almost made it.)
A Map of virtue Through July 12, by convergence-continuum at the Liminis, 2438 Scranton Rd., 216-687-0074, convergence-continuum.com.