Heartland Theatre Collective’s Little Bird

The vulnerability of small things is at the heart of Nicole Oglesby’s drama of girls and ghosts in East Texas bayou country

Franny Harold (l) as Willa and Kenzie Stewart as Peg in Little Bird (Photo by Daniel Ellsworth)

The girl cups the baby bird in her hands, anxious eyes locked on it as she fears that life is ebbing from its tiny body. The girl had never heard that mama birds reject babies that had been touched by a human. She was just worried for it having fallen out of the nest; it looked so small and defenseless and alone on the ground. The girl had just wanted to help, but now her touch will cause it to die.

The vulnerability of small things is at the heart of Little Bird, the new drama by Austin playwright Nicole Oglesby. Like the avian creatures that inhabit East Texas' Piney Woods, girls like Willa, who touched the bird, and her bestie Peg live in a perilous place, where they are exposed to dangers they're ill-equipped to defend themselves against and where a touch can be deadly. Both have reached the unlucky age of 13, when their minds are still attached to childhood but their bodies are growing out of it whether they want them to or not. And those bodies are attracting attention whether the girls want them to or not – attention from men who want to do more than look. The girls know a man's touch can be lethal: Another girl their age, Margot, went missing, and now her spirit haunts the bayou. Still, having a grownup's interest can make you feel grown yourself, which is a great temptation. So as Willa and Peg encounter various adult males whose solicitous nature seems to mask a prurient interest in them, the atmosphere of dread grows as thick as the hot, humid air of a swamp – a dread amplified by Oglesby's choice to have all the men played by a single actor identified in the program as portraying "The Hunter." In this place, girls are prey.

In such a setup, there's an inevitability to tragedy; you can anticipate the predator taking down its quarry as surely as you can that Chekhovian gun firing before the play's final curtain. But Little Bird has more going on in it than a long, tense wait for disaster. Ghosts exist, which allows characters who have been killed to stick around and work through their earthly issues in the afterlife. Oglesby's exploration of spectral existence takes us to unexpected places and provides some of her play's most human moments: the blossoming of friendships between spirits, the liberation from fears that troubled one in life, the frustration with time passing, the exhaustion of watching the world from an unbreachable remove, the yearning to comfort a loved one and be remembered by them. The dead, we see, are no less vulnerable than the living.

"We were too little," "We were so little," say Willa and Peg late in the play as the two reflect together on the time when they were 13. It speaks to the strengths of Heartland Theatre Collective's premiere of Little Bird and the sensitivity of Marian Kansas' direction that the exchange bears the weight of close friendship and passed time. As Willa and Peg, Franny Harold and Kenzie Stewart, respectively, create the distinctive bond of friends who are opposites in personality and sensibility and yet enjoy each other, forming a complementary whole. Stewart is the more confident of the pair, still free of adolescent insecurities, chin up, eyes trained on the sky. By contrast, Harold is all downcast gaze and furrowed brow, fretful and haunted (qualities also expressed beautifully by Christabel Lin's live violin playing). You sense how well Harold and Stewart fit together when you see either play a scene with any of Keith Adam Paxton's Hunter characters; his men are always trying to get something from a girl, and no matter how genial and considerate he sounds, his voice leaves an oily trail behind. Left to themselves, the girls are more inclined to give than take – this extends to Laney Neumann's Margot, an animated apparition in a tulle tutu – which makes one wish they could live in a place of their own, free of cruel, controlling men. Unfortunately, they reside in a dark wood infested by those who think it's their right to stalk and grab whatever they want, no matter how small or vulnerable.

Little Bird

Dougherty Arts Center, 1100 Barton Springs Rd.
Through June 16
Running time: 1 hr., 45 min.

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Heartland Theatre Collective, Nicole Oglesby, Marian Kansas, Kenzie Stewart, Franny Harold, Laney Neumann, Keith Adam Paxton

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