A flock of feelings among the birds of North America
“A bushy tit!” exclaims John (David Bryan Jackson) as he stands among fall leaves and wooden patio furniture in his backyard in a middle-class Baltimore neighborhood. Dressed in an olive photographer’s waistcoat over his black and white checkered flannel shirt, he tries to interest his adult daughter, Caitlyn (one dressed in denim Regina Aquino), in his hobby of always watching birds. Anna Ouyang Moench‘s Birds of North America at Mosaic Theater Company points out how, as with many activities shared by families and friends, especially those that require patience and delayed gratification, it is seldom just the activity itself, it is also acts of maintaining links, chatting or asking for advice.
For many professional theaters, doubles are an economic necessity in the programming of a season: salaries are among the most important expenses. Having a small-cast play is one way to save money so the company can afford to stage more financially ambitious productions later in the season. After 18 months of theatrical closures, many businesses must be more frugal than usual, even a company like Mosaic, which was able to pivot to stream shows during the pandemic. The two-handed format has certain constraints, and while some playwrights have made imaginative use of these constraints, they often gravitate towards a study of relationships or a conflict of ideas. Moench skillfully handles the two as his play traces a decade of backyard bird watching autumns, giving his cast ample opportunity to show off their dramatic chops and ability to connect. Jackson has a memorably kinetic moment when he uses his hands to illustrate John’s enthusiasm as he explains the aerodynamics of an owl wing.
John, of course, is the one who most obviously lives his ideas: a medical researcher, he left a career as a clinician to seek a vaccine against dengue, a tropical virus transmitted by mosquitoes that kills 40,000 per year (a vaccine , CYD-TDV, has entered the market since Moench completed the piece, but it has risks that largely limit its recommended use only to those previously infected; other vaccines continue to be tested). John sees much of life through the prism of the scientific method: hypotheses must be tested; to fail is to start over with a new hypothesis. An environmentalist, he avoids air travel and adds solar energy to the home to reduce his carbon footprint.
Seasons pass and climate change is making the autumns warmer and hotter, altering bird migration patterns. While this leads to a time when father and daughter share the thrill of an unexpected flyby over a herd of American Redstarts, it also fuels John’s slow burn that Caitlyn spends years working as a copywriter for a website for conservative information with a blatant pro-gun, anti-abortion editorial line and climate change denial, all while writing a sci-fi literary novel in parallel. While Caitlyn sees her parents’ marriage as a model of long-term commitment (even if it requires negotiation), her life never turns out as planned.
If Caitlyn has a critique of John’s worldview, it’s not that she espouses the ideology of her employers – she just wants to draw the line between what she does for a living and who she is – it is because she realizes much earlier than her father that she cannot start over. The scientific method uses statistics and protocols, but life is lived by an individual. The internship that led to her work as a copywriter also prevents her from certain industries and employers when the time comes for change; his demarcation hypothesis is flawed in his own eyes. When her marriage ends after a miscarriage, she sees some of her family options shut down. When John’s well-intentioned efforts to explain the science of miscarriages and read politics in his grief, he fails an empathy test, foreshadowing a series of things he also can’t take back. What starts off as a light comedy may avert tragedy, but it ends as an elegy.
Director Serge seiden approaches the text with a light but graceful touch, his hand being most visible in transitions between scenes when Jackson or a stagehand drops more sheets on the stage. David Lamont WilsonThe sound design of s incorporates the whistles, chirps and trills of migrating birds, but also includes solo oboe and bassoon improvisations during the transitions. Lighting designer Brittany Shemuga reproduces the good quality of sunlight to make the fall colors of Alexa ross‘set to pop briskly.
Birds of North America runs through November 21 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE. mosaïquethéâtre.org. $ 20 to $ 60. The race will be extended for video streaming.