Jan Probst Reveals Marital Truths in Lock-Down
by Patricia L. Morin
Phoenix Theatre’s “Bird on a Tree Branch” magnifies the psychological fallout from holding long-hidden secrets in a patriarchal marriage.
It’s 1964, and a white middle-class couple is driving home in a terrible storm. They stop to pick up Hannah Jackson (Desiree Rogers), a “colored” woman in danger from the raging tornado.
The three of them shelter-in-place in the couple’s stone-walled basement. Vivian and Doug Smiley (Kerry Gudjohnsen & Richard Aiello) play host, awkwardly, while the tornado howls. Branches crash outside, as they play cards and Doug drinks beer, getting tipsy.
Playwright Jan Probst uses Doug to spotlight the patriarchal obsession with military might, medals, and monopoly over women. Insecure Doug, an insurance salesman, brags to Hannah about his ancestor’s heroism in the Civil War, as he wears an “official” blue Union cap. Doug has thrust his out-of-date, bossy attitudes on his wife for over twenty years.
Ruled by Doug, Vivian harbors a secret, while playing the “staunch, dutiful wife.” Viv placates and apologizes, defending her oppressor. She purposely hides her intelligence, saying to Hannah: “He sees me in his own way.”
Probst cleverly juxtaposes Vivian and Hannah, with Hannah depicting the strength of the Suffrage Movement, and Vivian cowering. Always fearful and anxious, Viv jumps on a chair when a mouse scampers by—nicely executed by Gudjohnsen—yet afraid to share why.
Unabashed, Doug interrogates Hannah—Why is she walking in their neighborhood on Palm Sunday? Shouldn’t she be at church? Is she cleaning houses?
Doug is shocked to learn that Hannah teaches calculus at the junior college, and is, in fact, Doctor Hannah Jackson. Sixties men like Doug rejected freedom for women to choose jobs or enter college. For Doug, men go to work, while “Women have hobbies.”
Hannah suggests different card games to diffuse the mounting tension, and Doug eagerly competes, playing again and again, hoping to win. But Hannah presents a strong, controlled, and patient character, a testimony to her own upbringing based on independence and resilience.
Rogers, through Hannah, delivers a heartrending monologue to her dead brother. She yells, “I am so angry at a world that refuses to have a place for you.” How many people feel that way—and often? She speaks for women who have felt constantly displaced, ignored, abandoned.
Although America has made giant steps on the path to gender equality, men still outnumber women in theater, the arts, and especially in corporations.
Director Julie Dimas-Lockfeld brings out the best in these very fine actors.
Christian Haines’ sound effects and music choices like “At last” by Glenn Miller, and “I Feel Like a Motherless Child” by Marian Anderson, beautifully augment the intensifying storm, and frustrations of the early 60s.
Probst only hints at several major issues—gender parity, class distinction, racism. I was left wanting more exploration of the 60s social unrest. But the explosive ending brings high drama.
When hidden issues surface in a station-in-place, there’s nowhere to run. We are locked down again with Covid, and the storms of gender and racial inequality are still churning outside our doors.
Women are still the embattled birds grasping onto a branch, fearful that patriarchal winds will, once again, blow them away.
“Bird on a Tree Branch” by Jan Probst, directed by Julie Dimas-Lockfeld, by Phoenix Theatre Company. Streaming at: PhoenixTheatre.SF – to March 31, 2021.
Cast: Richard Aiello, Sam Aaron Cohen, Kerry Gudjohnsen, Christian Haines, Desiree Rogers, and Madison Worthington.
Banner photos: Kerry Gudjohnsen and Desiree Rogers.