While it may be no more than a wisp of a play, “Birdie Blue” is a sweetheart of a character study. Cheryl L. West’s poignant look at the life of a long-suffering woman at the end of her rope gets a dream perf from S. Epatha Merkerson and a production that oozes sympathy from helmer Seret Scott. Show has legs to travel to racially and femme-themed festival venues. But, like razor blades and caustic fluids, you want to keep this one away from the depressed.
Upbeat character of Birdie Blue (Merkerson) goes down swinging hard at a downbeat subject — the paralyzingly slow and sad mental deterioration of her beloved third husband, Jackson (Charles Weldon), sinking into the neverland of Alzheimer’s.
Buoyed by her naturally sunny disposition and her faith in the teachings of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. — qualities Merkerson conveys in a mellow voice and with a radiant expression that comes from some inner glow — this broad-backed cleaning woman from the South Side of Chicago carries out the spine-cracking chores of caring for her bedridden man with no complaints. Not many, anyway.
But when his raving gets too much for her and she raises a belt to him, her plaintive cry — “It’s gettin’ too easy to hurt him!” — lodges right in the heart.
Music and memory are the twin elements that shape this static material in production. Softened by Anna Louizos’ surreal domestic setting (all open walls and exaggerated architectural features) and warmed by Don Holder’s unearthly lighting (which becomes positively celestial in the final scene), Birdie’s memories of good days and bad play out in nonlinear scenes of no particular chronology.
To snatches of music from the appropriate time periods, characters from both the past and the present — all played with rather grim efficiency by Billy Porter — step in and out of the framework to remind Birdie of love lost and found and lost again.
Although the particulars of each scene add incrementally to our understanding of Birdie’s history, vignettes of her bratty son and distant siblings bring little to her character not already communicated quite eloquently through Merkerson’s generous perf. The indispensable scenes are the ones in which Jackson rises from his bed to join Birdie in enacting both the earlier phases of their love and the heartbreaking stages of his mental deterioration.
Like Birdie, Jackson talks in a vivid regional accent that playwright West renders with delicacy and humor and that Weldon delivers with extraordinary good grace. “I like to work and I like to laugh,” this charming man declares, scooping up Birdie for a dance. Although we can see the tragic ending coming a mile away, it’s some comfort to know the love they had was real and altogether fine.
“Nobody can’t say we didn’t live like somebody loved us, can they, Jackson?” Birdie says at the end. And when she answers her own question with a definitive, “No, indeed,” we can only add, “Amen.”