Mike Sears and Farah Dinga in "Birds of North America." Photo courtesy of Moxie Theatre
The tall trees beyond retired John’s Baltimore County back yard twitter with birds in autumn, though less and less as the years pass and the consequences of man-made climate change work their will. In between the diminishing music of the birds, father and daughter struggle to connect on almost every level.
Moxie Theatre’s 74th production in its 19th year is Anna Ouyang Moench’s one-act “Birds of North America,” which was first seen here in 2017 as part of the Wagner New Play Festival at UCSD. Then as now, the part of John, an avid backyard birder (don’t call it bird-watching, he says), is played by Mike Sears. His is a nuanced performance of slow-burn silences, grouchy pronouncements, stubborn assertions and sudden passive aggressions. Yet there is tender admiration inside him for the winged creatures whose appearances he documents in his ever-present birding record book.
Farah Dinga is John’s daughter Caitlyn, fighting the good fight most of the time with the weight of disappointments oppressing her. Her greatest disappointment may be the lack of the kind of relationship she craves with her old dad. (Her mother and brother are referred to many times in the play but never seen.) Dinga makes Caitlyn both worthy adversary and poignant counterpoint to Sears’ father character. Theirs is an affecting and wholly believable performance.
“Birds,” directed at Moxie by Lisa Berger, unfolds as a series of short, tense mini-scenes, each one a year or so later than the previous. Not as much changes as you’d expect as time goes by. John and Caitlyn spar and let intended hurts slip out and don’t seem to grasp that they have anything in common. Even their respective views through binoculars of the backyard birds are rarely the same.
Moench has avoided the predictable trope of the conservative father and liberal daughter, instead reversing the philosophical stances. John is a fierce environmentalist, Caitlyn employed first by a right-leaning website and later an oil company, which comes closest to anything in the play to summoning her father’s rage.
We keep waiting, through all the animus, for a father-daughter breakthrough. And waiting. And waiting. The sniping back and forth will remind many families of their own disharmony, including the frequent polemics, familiar and tiring as it sounds after a few rounds onstage.
What’s missing from the outset is an understanding of why Caitlyn makes these visits, why she seems to want a closer relationship with her father so badly. Is it because she is distant from her unseen mother or brother? Because love in general for her has been fleeting, even elusive? Hers is by far the more complex character of the two in “Birds of North America,” but even with Dinga’s complete commitment to their portrayal (the play’s post-miscarriage scene is devastating), Caitlyn’s yearning to know John better must be more complicated than just a child wanting a parent’s love and not feeling it.
While Moench’s script may have its weaknesses, there’s no short-changing the co-stars of “Birds of North America,” nor the fine directorial hand of Lisa Berger. The backyard scenic design by Robin Sanford Roberts with its sturdy trees and burnished leaves is lovely, while Matt Lescault-Wood’s sounds of birds winging gently by and overhead create a peaceful contrast to the discord beneath.
If Moench is making a statement about our recklessness with the natural world – and she is – it’s a subtly integrated one, which is much to her credit. Shouting rarely solves anything, as John and Caitlyn might attest.
“Birds of North America” runs through March 5 at Moxie Theatre in Rolando.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.