Directed by Jonathan Wilson
At Raven Theatre, Chicago
Abusive aging parents fight their son’s help as they face old age
Blind Playwright Todd Bauer has penned a world premiere family drama, The Bird Feeder Doesn’t Know, that realistically depicts the slow trauma facing many American families. Yes, as couples born in the 1930’s and 40’s (me included) face the inevitable tribulations of getting old, we become a story. Bauer sets up his family drama with two folks, Herman (the terrific Chuck Spencer) and his nagging, contriving complainer wife Ingrid (Sheila Landahl) as they live in their home of 40+ years with a daily routine. Herman spends his days tinkering to fix things, clocks, home alarms and the roof. He shows early signs of dementia and physical limitations. Ingrid always sees the negative in events as she struggles to control Herman’s routine as she complains and nags him.
Just as we start to have empathy for these aging folks, they spout bigotry. Herman mocks gays in the military and both he and Ingrid talk about how “unsafe’ their neighborhood as become as blacks move in and even come to their church. Their inflexible beliefs that find them living in the past allow them to create a “bunker mentality” as Ingrid, especially, refers to their home as their ‘safe place.’
Once we meet their son Everett (Joshua J. Volkers) their 42 year old son with cerebral palsy who has a life-long estrangement with his parents, we truly see how ignorant and abusive these blue collar folks really are. Through flashbacks, we see how, despite trying to love their handicapped son, they each stifle their son’s self esteem by psychologically limited his expectations as they constantly make him realize how handicapped he is. The also do something that many parents of their era did–pressure their son to study “business” in college rather than allowing him to study art for which he has talent and passion. The only want “what is best for their son.” These attitudes by his parents ultimately puts a strain on Everett.
Yet, as his parents continue to slide down as aging and physical ailments take their toll, Everett still feels enough love for them to try to help them. He floats the idea of a retirement home but the inflexible parents, especially Ingrid, will not even consider that option. Playwright Todd Bauer pushes the theme of role reversal by having the son who has left the nest return to aid the parents who now need their son’s help even if they don’t realize they need his help. Eventually, the parents seek the son’s help but only on their terms as they selfishly want Everett to move back home rather than commute two hours on weekends.
While I appreciate Bauer’s depiction of the inflexibility of aging couples, I found both to be unlikable folks. Herman is a weak personality who always gives into Ingrid’s demands. She is so controlling that we easily hate her. Why after all the psychological abuse Everett suffered, he still feels the obligation to help his parents speaks to the power of ‘mother’s guilt’ that still controls the son. This drama leave the issues unresolved as Herman takes the coward’s way out. If that had only happened an hour earlier, we all would not have had to sit through more of this depressing play. I wonder who the audience is for this play? Seniors like me (and others I spoke to) feel the play is offensive and 20/30 somethings found the parents as bigots while also wondering why Everett would ever return home? Bauer does show how ignorant parents stifle a physically challenged son but ultimately shows the effects of a controlling mother. This work plays as a ‘downer.’
Talk Theatre in Chicago podcast
Date Reviewed: April 4, 2015
For more info checkout The Bird Feeder Doesn’t Know page at theatreinchicaho.com
At Raven Theatre, 6157 N Clark St., Chicago, IL, (773) 338-2177. www.raventheatre.com,, Thursdays – Saturdays at 8:00 PM, Sundays at 3:30 PM, Run Time: Two hours, including a ten-minute intermission, through may 16, 2015