Intention, integrity, advocacy, and the spaces that both bind and divide us are on elegant display in Moxie Theatre’s newest offering and exploration of family, Birds of North America, running through Mar. 5.
Set in the singular location of John’s suburban yard in Maryland over the course of many years, the story follows birder John and his adult daughter Caitlyn as they repeatedly try to reconnect while navigating their differing beliefs. The drama highlights the divergence of generations and politics as well as moments of awkward silences when apologies might have been better.
John, a scientist, has just entered clinical trials to develop a vaccine for Dengue fever. Caitlyn is a copyeditor who hopes to finish writing a novel. Their beliefs about the world aren’t too far apart; both understand climate change to be an issue of our times and both want to spend time with one another. Where they differ, however, is in their perceived ability to align their belief structure with their work, as well as in their success for finding empathy for one another’s experiences and choices. Written by Anna Ouyong Moench, Birds of North America is intended to center around climate and the ways that the world is changing through the vehicle of a complex relationship between a father and daughter and, as staged in the Moxie space by director Lisa Berger, the production does just that and is both intimate and relatable.
The two actors Mike Sears (John) and Farah Dinga (Caitlyn), who rarely leave the stage, are stunning in their delivery. Sears affects alternately aloof, euphoric, and morally indignant attitudes about the world and its inner workings while being unmaliciously ignorant of his daughter’s needs. Dinga similarly delivers a visceral performance, navigating life changes and challenges that show just how disconnected their relationship truly is. The realism of each actor’s portrayal is heart wrenching.
Furthermore, the artistic decisions made by the director, as well as those incorporated by scenic designer Robin Sanford Roberts, lighting designer Joshua Heming, and sound designer Matt Lescault-Wood are simply breathtaking. The simple stage features two-dimensional tree trunks which stretch toward the sky, autumn branches with falling amber leaves (fun fact: apparently, fall foliage reflects an unmasking of a tree’s true colors), a rake and trash bin, a table with an assortment of clay pots, a picnic table set on pavers, and a wooden deck box. Each of these elements appears in front of a curving lauan wall, painted to symbolize the sky. However, as the lights shift, the depth and texture of those trees, paired with intentionally placed shadows, create an unexpected dimensionality. Bird calls and the flapping of wings echo around the theatre space. The actors follow them with their eyes, and we do, too, expecting to see the birds ourselves.
Berger has also employed costume design by Danita Lee alongside the aforementioned lights and sound in scene changes to full effect. As brighter scene lights fade and Dinga makes minute changes to apparel and props to imply the passage of time, situational lighting on Sears keeps the audience present and observant. A smaller pair of binoculars are replaced, in real time, by a nicer pair, which are lovely cleaned in this light. A rainstorm lasting only through the scene change combines the thundering sound of water with the addition of a hat and coat, then one of them is shed to begin the next scene.
These tightly designed moments add to the potency of the production and, while it would be inaccurate to say that they make the show (as John says, “intentions are fine, but they are not enough”), when combined with the outstanding performances of the actors on stage and the prescient commentary on climate and our complicity within the system, work incredibly well.
Birds of North America is a must-see which runs through Mar. 5.