Review: Playwright Steve Yockey’s “The Thrush and the Woodpecker” is a fan pleaser

Kathleen Wattis Kettrey is part of a cast of three that brings the play to life. (Photo by BreeAnne Clowdus)
Kathleen Wattis Kettrey is part of a cast of three that brings the play to life. (Photo by BreeAnne Clowdus)
Kathleen Wattis Kettrey is part of a cast of three that brings the play to life. (Photo by BreeAnne Clowdus)
Kathleen Wattis Kettrey is part of a cast of three that brings the play to life. (Photo by BreeAnne Clowdus)

You might describe the typical Steve Yockey play, including The Thrush and the Woodpecker currently in production at Actor’s Express through November 15, as follows: 

In a seemingly innocuous setting, often domestic, the ostensibly trivial bickering of comfortably familiar character-types (mother and son, mismatched lovers, etc.) becomes the backdrop against which more ominous events unfold. Hidden undercurrents of retribution, jealousy and madness result in a sudden turn towards violence, usually brought on by the arrival of a mysterious visitor and always accompanied by ominous notes of the supernatural and animalistic. 

All of this is densely packed into one act, which is hurled at the viewer in 90 minutes or less. 

It sounds as though I’m criticizing the playwright for being formulaic, and I suppose in some ways I am. But this is also to say that the writer has developed — like H.P. Lovecraft, Alfred Hitchcock or Stephen King — an appealing, identifiable style of telling a suspenseful tale, which is actually praise.

Yockey started out as an intern at Actor’s Express in 2001, and the company produced his play Octopus in 2008. Actor’s Express takes justifiable pride in the writer’s subsequent development and success; American Theatre magazine recently listed him as one of the top 20 most produced playwrights in the country this season in a list that also includes Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller and Eugene O’Neill. 

In an era when it’s increasingly difficult to do so, Yockey has connected to contemporary audiences with a distinctive style.

An Actor’s Express season now typically includes a Yockey work, and they’re always welcome additions to the Atlanta season. This season, the company takes on two Yockey plays in rep, Thrush, which opened October 31 and runs through November 22, and Blackberry Winter which will open November 6.

In the opening scene of Thrush, a mother and son are bickering about his expulsion from college. A mysterious stranger arrives; there are ominous portents of the supernatural and animalistic, and undercurrents of madness and retribution are revealed. 

It’s all very nicely done in an admirably slick production, and the skills of the small cast of three actors (Matthew Busch, Stacy Melich and Kathleen Wattis Kettrey) in bringing the tale to life can’t be praised highly enough.

Among the themes here are justice, retribution, motherhood and the supernatural. They’re universal and timeless topics, for sure, but they’re also often adolescent obsessions, as well. And indeed, there’s something adolescent about their mixture here, something of the old-school comic book (not the artsy kind) about the way they’re condensed together into a fast-paced story with little ambiguity. 

There’s something of a gimmick in it, and the feeling of authorial manipulation lingers. We’re shocked, stunned, surprised, disturbed or delighted by the thrilling ride, but the holy grail of being truly moved or enlightened remains elusive.

Still, there’s a lot to enjoy here. The situation, though it’s outlandish, is deeply felt. The aura of ominous mystery is convincingly evoked in spite of the too-talky opening, and the plot turns are expertly played. 

Yockey fans will be well-pleased, and those who long for the talented writer to move in a new direction actually won’t have long to wait. The next one, Blackberry Winter, is described as a “warm and gentle” story of a woman caring for a mother with Alzheimer’s. What can you say? Yockey clearly likes surprises.

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