Saturday, July 27, 2019

Review of "Birds of North America"

A father and daughter trying to connect, to communicate is the subject of Anna Moench’s meditative drama, Birds of North America.  From the onset of the two-character play, the audience feels the divide between John (J.R. Sullivan) and Caitlin (Melisa Breiner-Sanders), which is only temporarily improved while both are birding, a lifelong hobby of dad’s.  During these moments of identifying the sounds and plumage of the feathered animals there is a gentle, heartfelt rapport between the two protagonists.  However, the détente doesn’t usually last long as father and daughter end up arguing, disagreeing, and quarrelling over relationships, job prospects, and politics.

Time passes – the action takes place over a 12-year period - and father and daughter continue to meet.  Major changes occur in both their personal and professional lives until, in the end, there is just one person remaining, reminiscing.

Anna Moench’s play doesn’t uncover any new ground when examining a father/daughter relationship.  The potency in her writing is how skillfully she has crafted the two characters and their interactions, which feels real, not contrived.  What is left unsaid is the motivation for the pair getting together?  Do they realize the chasm in their relationship and is birding the only way for them to come together? 

The cast is finely tuned to the rhythms of the work.  J.R. Sullivan gives a superb performance by firmly staying in character—a highly opinionated individual with entrenched views who really doesn’t want to or just cannot listen to what is his daughter is saying.  Melisa Breiner-Sanders delivers a more animated portrayal as she relates the trials and tribulations of her young life, squabbles with her father, and constantly clashes with him.  The pain and sadness this produces is sorrowfully etched across her face.

The strength of Jason Peck’s direction is how he keeps the characters speaking and interacting, but almost never at close quarters.  There always seems to be a physical distance between father and daughter, which is not easy to accomplish over a 90-minute period.  At one point, towards the end of the production, John, standing behind Caitlin gently and, almost in passing, puts his hand on her should for a brief instant.  The moment was electric as the gesture and smile on his face truly encapsulated all he could not say face-to-face.

Fufan Zhang’s minimal Scenic Design, a backyard area of grass with a large tree decorated in small bird feeders looming over the performance space, effectively conveys an outdoor setting.  Lydia Strong’s Lighting Design, notably the passage of time signaled by shadows sweeping across the small, semi-darkened stage, is artfully rendered. 

Birds of North America, playing at the Thrown Stone theater company in Ridgefield through August 3rd.

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