“Little Bird,” a new play by Nicole Oglesby now playing at the Dougherty Arts Center, is only the second production from one of Austin’s newest theater companies, the Heartland Theatre Collective. Formed by Oglesby and Marian Kansas (who directs “Little Bird”) after they graduated from the University of Texas, Heartland describes its mission as telling “rich, powerful stories of Texan women of the past, present, and future that feature female artists working in Austin.”
Like the company’s first production, “Dust” (also an Oglesby/Kansas collaboration), “Little Bird” weaves a rich, emotionally nuanced tapestry around a story that is vital to women. While “Dust” was a period piece, “Little Bird” is much more contemporary. Set in an East Texas bayou, it tells the story of two teenage girls, best friends Willa and Peg, as they find themselves on the cusp of womanhood and suddenly under the gaze of predatory men.
Though a world premiere, this is clearly a play that has undergone a lot of thought and revision, thanks in part to dramaturg (and, with Oglesby and Kansas, co-producer) Katy Matz. Oglesby’s text is complex, layered and emotionally difficult at times, dealing as it does with issues of abuse and pedophilia. Underneath the darkness, though, shines the light of the girls’ friendship, a beacon to pull them through the dark swampland of their troubles. The relationship between the two women is the heart of the show, and the two actresses portraying the girls in this production keep that heart beating fervently.
Kenzie Stewart’s exuberant, innocent Peg is a stark and powerful contrast to the more reserved Willa, played by Franny Harold with a kind of uncomfortable wisdom that a girl Willa’s age should not have. From the first scene, it is clear that Willa has been traumatized in her past, and the play hints that she will not be spared further trauma in the future. Laney Neumann plays Margot, a ghost whom only Willa can see and who was murdered by her own abuser. Her poised performance, undergirded by childlike, kinetic playfulness, serves as a commentary on the ways in which society sexualizes young women, often with tragic results.
Rounding out the cast is Keith Adam Paxton as “The Hunter,” a shorthand title for the transmutation role he takes on as all the men in the play. Oglesby deliberately keeps the story free of noble or protective males, showcasing instead how different types of men — from family members, to strangers, to boyfriends — can be predatory towards young women. Paxton’s strength here is in the subtle differentiation he shows between different types of abusers, some of whom are merely creepy while others are violently dangerous, raising important questions about contemporary male culpability.
“Little Bird” is a play of relationships and small character moments, and Kansas wisely puts all the focus on her quartet of performers. She takes advantage of the enormous depth of the Dougherty Arts Center’s stage, creating power dynamics out of negative space and crafting instant transitions on Amanda Perry’s transformative set design, with the aid of Lindsey McGowan’s lush, saturated lighting and Christabel Lin’s somber violin score (played live by the composer herself).
With both “Dust” and “Little Bird” making vital contributions to important conversations surrounding the lives of Texas women, the Heartland Theatre Collective promises to be an important voice in Austin theater in the years to come, and Oglesby and Kansas a creative collaboration to watch out for.
When: 7:30 p.m. June 14-16
Where: Dougherty Arts Center, 1110 Barton Springs Road