As a person who makes plays and as a person who writes about them, I am often tasked with assessing a play’s level of success in pulling off what it sets out to do. In the case of Grief Is the Thing with Feathers, playwright and director Enda Walsh had a tough job: Translate one of the most important books I’ve ever read to the stage. And, man oh man, in the production running at St. Ann’s Warehouse this month, he pulls it off, he pulls it way off.
The play, as with Max Porter’s novel from which it’s adapted, has a relatively simple and strange story: A man’s wife has died, and Grief manifests itself as a human-sized crow who invades his family’s home, lingering and lurking. Dad fights the Crow; Dad doesn’t want this unwelcome visitor; Dad is mourning. Dad is having a tough time. Eventually, the mourning process ends, and while Grief never truly leaves a person, Dad and his two sons are able to move on.
Walsh has taken Porter’s gorgeous postmodern text and deftly conjured something wonderful. The novel submerges the reader in abstract language that only really begins to make sense as Dad emerges from the fog of the mourning process; the play translates this to the stage by placing Porter’s incredibly heightened language alongside nearly constant projections (vitally created by Will Duke) and sound, at times deafeningly loud (equally vital, by Helen Atkinson). The experience of the play feels akin to those first few minutes of Shakespeare, where your ear adapts to the iambic pentameter, where you are forced to lean in and really focus in order to understand and immerse yourself in the play’s world.
Walsh’s direction is stunning. His use of Jamie Vartan’s set, a spare London flat with a bunk bed on one side, two doors, a kitchen, and a staircase to an unseen second floor, is constantly surprising. The use of 1980s music, juxtaposed with Teho Teardo’s loopy minimalist score, clarifies the play’s time and place.
Cillian Murphy, in the dual role of Dad and Crow, is a master at work. His anguish in grief as Dad is as clear as Crow’s desperation to wreck the daily lives of this family he’s been assigned. Murphy’s vocal work is wonderful. His clear baritone rings through the auditorium as Dad, and his demon-adjacent character voice for Crow terrifies when spoken into well-hidden microphones in his costume. The switch between the characters is as simple as the flip on or off of the bathrobe he wears for most of the show. Watching him work is one of the best gifts I’ve been given this season, on Broadway and off.
Grief is my bosom buddy; grief’s held a prominent place in my mind and heart for most of my life. Going to pour a bowl of cereal and then getting lost in thought and forgetting about the cereal for the next three hours until realizing you’re hungry again. Trying to climb the stairs. Trying to get to sleep. Seeing a play that so clearly showed the struggle to get through a day while mourning felt so freeing to me, made me feel less alone, helped me give grief permission to leave.
I found myself crying for reasons I couldn’t pinpoint during the show. Grief Is the Thing with Feathers hit so many raw nerves with such precision in its translation from page to stage that I can’t help but feel it will remain one of the most important nights I’ve spent in a theatre for a long, long time.