A suspense tale about screaming mothers, and birds

Some horror writers believe that suspense is best summoned by suggestion. A strange cry in the night might elicit more chills than a knife-wielding psycho — merely because we can’t see or explain the mysterious noise.

There’s a bit of that in “The Thrush & the Woodpecker,” a world premiere by Atlanta native Steve Yockey at Actor’s Express. While comparisons with Hitchcock’s “The Birds” will surely be drawn here, Yockey, who now lives in Los Angeles, seems more preoccupied of late with exploding hyper-realistic forms and peopling his dark comedies with troubled characters who tread the line between the living and the dead.

What happens in a Yockey play — talking dogs, ravenous sea monsters who splash and flail on the living room floor, strange visitors who crawl out of kitchen appliances — cannot be explained by science or logic. What begins as an ordinary day — a mother and son bickering over pop tarts (“Pluto”) or coffee (“The Thrush & the Woodpecker”) — might twist into something supernatural, something as harrowing as Greek tragedy, as archetypal as Freud.

In “The Thrush & the Woodpecker,” college senior Noah Hendriks (Matthew Busch) has been kicked out of school for vandalism, much to the chagrin of his mother, Brenda (Stacy Melich). This anxious mom lives in a beautiful, isolated place with an absent husband and sips from a giant coffee mug spiked with whiskey and sarcasm.

As if to put their argument on hold, Brenda runs out for errands, leaving Noah to receive a woman named Roisin Danner (Kathleen Wattis Kettrey), who says she’s an old friend of Brenda’s. That’s about all I’ll say about the plot, except that the “reckoning” that follows is a blood-curdling meditation on eggs that stray from the nest and mothers bent on revenge.

Directed by Melissa Foulger, “The Thrush & the Woodpecker” is not the finest of the Yockey plays I’ve seen at Actor’s Express. (That would be “Pluto,” followed by “Wolves.”) But the writing is quite strong, and it sure rattles the nerves, adroitly balancing external menace with shocking domestic revelations. Think of it as material for the “The Jerry Springer Show” — with vengeful zombies and daggers.

For sure, Yockey understands the naturally occurring phenomenon of nagging moms and misunderstood children. Busch’s Noah — “I just wanted coffee!” — is pitch-perfect. An astronomy student who is annoyed by the “light pollution” that destroys our ability to see the stars, Noah is sweet at the core, a little passive, yet not in the mood for bullying.

Melich is also quite good. Though a little flat on the day I caught the show, she calibrates her performance carefully, so that, in the end, her Brenda is fully picked apart by the consequences of her past. Kettrey’s Roisin is witchy, mysterious and very, very mean. She’ll scare you to death.

“The Thrush & the Woodpecker” runs in rotating repertory with “Blackberry Winter,” another new work from Yockey about mothers and children. Both plays are part of the National New Play Network’s “rolling world premiere” program, meaning that there are multiple productions happening around the country this year.

It will interesting to see how “Blackberry Winter,” a tale of a daughter caring for her Alzheimer’s-afflicted mom, sits next to “The Thrush & the Woodpecker.” Given this playwright’s distinctive style, it will not be an ordinary journey.

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