Birds of North America
David Bryan Jackson and Regina Aquino in Anna Ouyang Moench’s Birds of North America Credit: Chris Banks

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“A tufted titmouse!” exclaims John (David Bryan Jackson) as he stands among the autumn leaves and wooden lawn furniture in his yard in some middle-class Baltimore neighborhood. Wearing an olive photographer’s vest over his black-and-white plaid flannel shirt, he tries to interest his adult daughter, Caitlyn (a denim-clad Regina Aquino), in his lifelong hobby of bird-watching. Anna Ouyang Moench’s Birds of North America at Mosaic Theater Company highlights how, as with many activities shared by families and friends—especially those requiring patience and delayed gratification—the point is rarely just about the activity itself, it’s also to maintain connections, gossip, or seek advice. 

For many professional theaters, two-handers are an economic necessity in programming a season: Salaries are among the largest expenditures involved. Having a small-cast play is a way of saving money so that the company can afford to stage more financially ambitious productions later in the season. After 18 months of theater spaces being closed, many companies have to be more frugal than usual, even a company like Mosaic, which was able to pivot to presenting streaming shows during the pandemic. The two-hander format has certain constraints and, while some playwrights have made imaginative use of these constraints, they often gravitate toward either a relationship study or a clash of ideas. Moench deftly handles both as her play tracks a decade of autumns spent bird-watching in the backyard, providing her actors an 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’s wing.

John, of course, is the one who most obviously lives his ideas: A medical researcher, he left a career as a clinician to search for a vaccine for dengue fever, a mosquito-borne tropical virus estimated to kill 40,000 a year (an effective vaccine, CYD-TDV, has entered the market since Moench finished the play, but it poses risks that largely limit its recommended use only to those previously infected; other vaccines continue to be tested). John views much of life through the lens of the scientific method: Hypotheses are to be tested; failure means starting over with a new hypothesis. An environmentalist, he avoids air travel and adds solar power to the house to reduce his carbon footprint.

The seasons pass and climate change makes the autumns warmer and warmer, altering the migration patterns of the birds. While that leads to a moment where father and daughter share the thrill of an unexpected flyover by a flock of American Redstarts, it also fuels John’s slow burn that Caitlyn spends years working as a copy editor for a conservative news website with a blatant pro-gun, anti-abortion, climate change-denying editorial line, while writing a literary science fiction novel on the side. While Caitlyn sees in her parents’ marriage a model of long-term commitment (even if it requires negotiation), her life never goes as planned.

If Caitlyn has a critique of John’s worldview, it’s not that she espouses the ideology of her employers—she simply desires to demarcate the line between what she does to earn a living and who she is—it’s that she realizes much earlier than her father that she doesn’t get to start over. The scientific method uses statistics and protocols, but life is lived by an individual. The internship that led to her copy-editing job also precludes her from certain industries and employers when it comes time to change; her hypothesis of demarcation is falsified in her own eyes. When her marriage ends after miscarrying, she sees some of her options for family closed off. When John’s well-intentioned effort to explain the science of miscarriages and read politics into her grief, he fails a test of empathy, portending a series of things he, too, cannot take back. What begins as light comedy may avoid tragedy, but it ends as elegy.

Director Serge Seiden approaches the text with a light but graceful touch, his hand most visible in the transitions between scenes when either Jackson or a stagehand deposits more leaves onto the stage. David Lamont Wilson’s sound design incorporates the whooshes, chirps, and trills of migratory birds, but also includes reedy solo improvisations of oboe and bassoon during the transitions. Lighting designer Brittany Shemuga replicates the right quality of sunlight to make the fall colors of Alexa Ross’ set to vividly pop.

Birds of North America runs to Nov. 21 at Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE. $20–$60. The run will be extended for streaming video.