Bird on a Tree Branch
by Jan Probst
As a tornado threatens to tear the town apart, Hannah finds herself to be an unexpected guest in Doug and Vivian’s basement refuge. It’s 1965, and civil rights meet civil war as the trio struggle to survive this shelter from the storm.
- Cast Size: 1 or 2M 2W
- Running Time: 90+ minutes
- Royalty Rate: $75 per performance
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Worlds collide in the most stultifying of settings, a cellar somewhere in the Midwest during a raging storm in 1965, in “Bird on a Tree Branch.” The three people sequestered are forced to face themselves and each other as the most sweeping and relevant of topics assault them and the audience at every turn. Race, secrets and lies, biases, and the age-old issue of the “inconvenient woman,” careen us through the emotional storm, redolent of our current challenges in a world that has become more complex and unfriendly on many levels. We are left with the notion that the good ‘ole days might not have been so good after all.
Characters are finely drawn and develop throughout the piece in unexpected fashion, hitting a final crescendo when all is revealed and the storms both inside and out subside. Extraordinarily effective in a Zoom presentation by the Phoenix Arts Association, the play can work exceptionally well in a live theatre space that can create that same feeling of insulation while our own 21st century world continues in a fury just outside the doors.
When I first saw a reading of Jan Probst’s Bird on a Tree Branch at the Last Frontier Theatre Conference in June 2019, I was eager to produce it. I immediately felt the impact of the characters pushed into survival mode and caught by the limitations of their experience. A nuanced drama about race and relationships, the playwright’s delicate and detailed treatment of human beings trying to reach across the divide to understand one another’s differences does not skirt around the uncomfortable. Due to the Covid pandemic the production was shut down before opening and we rehearsed and filmed the play performance on zoom which we released to the public on the one year anniversary March 20, 2021 of its original opening date in 2020. And then for 10 days thereafter it streamed on YouTube. I know this play will be even more effective on live stage for both players and audience given the freedom of physical movement in space that will only enhance its inherent dramatic conflict. My San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics colleagues shared praise across the boards:
“All three actors are superb, and the direction delicate and moving…in this sweet play”….Barry Horwitz
“Phoenix Theatre’s ‘Bird on a Tree Branch’ magnifies the psychological fallout from holding long-hidden secrets in a patriarchal marriage…the explosive ending brings high drama.” ……Patricia Morin
The full review is available at https://theatrius.com/2021/03/25/bird-on-a-tree-branch-explores-secrets-of-the-patriarchy-streaming-phoenix/
Jan Probst delivers with a taut, tension-filled drama as characters reveal their fears, secrets, and dark sides in well-crafted exchanges that keeping raising the stakes. But there is no escape for them or the audience as they shelter together from a tornado in a claustrophobic setting. Highly recommended!
In this beautifully crafted play, Jan Probst has managed to layer the human foibles of her characters in such a nuanced way that each one pulls for empathy in his or her own unique fashion as they struggle with truth and how to tell it. Surrounded by violence – inside and outside – I found my allegiance swinging from one to another as secrets are revealed through taut dialogue that offers subtext an actor will relish discovering. These are full, complicated and rich people driven by uncontrollable events that reflect the vagaries of our current world and shape their lives in realistic if sometimes unsatisfactory ways. Each speech and interaction moves the drama forward with humor and pathos. There is an economy in these portrayals that is riveting. The play builds to a climax that one can embrace with recognition.
The Zoom production managed an intimacy that drew me in and kept me focused on details. A fully staged production offers the opportunity to expand this tight-knit world and surround the characters with a director’s creative vision that may incorporate untold possibilities. This is a remarkable play that deserves attention and is strong enough to accommodate a multitude of approaches.
Impending danger forces us to face reality: it forces us to be honest with ourselves and those we care about. In this taut drama where three people are taking refuge from a horrific storm, the peril of physical harm brings suppressed echoes of the past and lays then starkly on the table for all to see and deal with honestly. Jan Probst’s characters are intricately drawn and we see them what really lies beneath, like when a storm peels off the roof of a house to show us the inside. And yet they hang on and survive.
Huddled in a basement with the infamous Palm Sunday tornados bearing down on them, a married couple and their unwilling guest confront long-held secrets, self-serving lies, long-standing grievances, and ingrained prejudices. A terrific character study that deserves wide-spread production.