There are two love stories currently competing for control of the play Birdie Blue at Second Stage. The more obvious one concerns the title character and her relationships with her husband and estranged son; she's struggling to hold onto each, though one walked out of her life and the other is vanishing, little by little, before her eyes.
The more important love story, however, is the one played out between the audience and S. Epatha Merkerson. From the instant she appears onstage as the title character, reveling in her rapturous memories of hearing Martin Luther King, Jr. speak the day before his assassination, she makes it difficult - if not outright impossible - not to love her. With an ingratiating smile and a voice recalling the ferocity of a crackling fire and the creamy comfort of homemade pudding, she immediately draws you into the world of a woman who's lived through a lot.
Even as it becomes clear that perhaps Birdie feels as if she's lived through too much Merkerson never lets you escape from her warm, maternal embrace. As problems pile up with her husband Jackson (Charles Weldon), who's suffering from a debilitating dementia, and her son Bam (Billy Porter), who walked out on her on the night of King's assassination to pursue a life of crime she strove to protect him against, you remain emotionally and spiritually bound to her as Birdie searches for personal peace and eternal love.
Over the course of this show - which, at 80 minutes, is snugly packed - playwright Cheryl L. West beautifully defines her characters (others include a young neighbor boy, and Birdie's brother and sister, all of whom Porter plays) to capture the imagination and secret hopes and despairs of a woman who's survived by pulling her world as close to her as possible. Everyone in the play is very funny and very real; they speak convincingly and they behave believably, even in the most difficult of situations.
But instead of trusting her characters, West has played too much with the show's "memory play" format and wound up making comprehending the action something of a chore. She constantly jumps around in the action, allowing Birdie's shifting perspectives and recollections to drive the story - now the present is melting into the past, now Birdie's earliest memories are informing events 40 years down the line. West's ideas are all strong, and there's not a wasted line of dialogue or stray event to be found, but following the story as she's laid it out is often a confusing, even tedious process.
Director Seret Scott has staged practically every scene with the same energy, the same tone, and the same visual point of view, none of which aids in digesting the story or makes the early 1960s scenes look or feel appreciably different from those set in the early 2000s. Neither Anna Louizos's scrambled house set, cluttered with wisps of window frames and walls that don't connect, nor Don Holder's evanescent lighting provide enough assistance for an audience trying to follow the specific details of the story.
The play is strongest in the final scenes, when the action unfolds in the most conspicuously linear manner of the evening, culminating in a coup de theatre that ties together the story's realistic, fantastic, and mystical elements in a beautiful, moving way. It's also near the end that Bam and Jackson take more central roles, giving Porter and Weldon some real chances of their own to shine: If Porter approaches the shticky in his portrayals of his other characters, his reading of the bitter Bam later in life is very affecting; Weldon absolutely charms in scenes that chronicle the early years of his and Birdie's marriage.
But it's Merkerson's show, and she's perfect throughout, making the doting Birdie every bit as tough and tender as she's described in the play. When she's tying Jackson up in bed to protect him, you feel her conflicted love; when violently scolding him later, you're with her in her frustration. Merkerson realizes all of Birdie's internal struggles - between selfishness and selflessness, between love and hate - in her cunning, meticulously crafted performance.
It all culminates in a single line: "I wish I could fly somewhere, but the devil done clipped my wings," Birdie cries in an argument with her sister, and her life does indeed seem to be a succession of aborted take-offs and crash landings. But she's not as earthbound as she appears, with West's breezy writing and Merkerson's soaring performance behind her. If a few structural flaws prevent everything in Birdie Blue from taking flight, Merkerson makes an intensely pleasurable voyage out of Birdie's jarring journey through the promised land of the heart.