For its return to Town Hall after a three-year absence Chester Theater Company’s second play of this season, Anna Ouyang Moench’s “Birds of North America,” combines one of the most ancient rituals of natural past times, birdwatching, and a contentious relationship between Father and daughter riven by the political divide in the country.
John and Caitlyn are father and daughter who we observe birding in John’s backyard in Baltimore County through short scenes over the course of a decade. From the opening, the relationship is prickly. He’s a scientist and the avid birder who makes detailed notes about the species he spies in his backyard-snowy owls LBJ’s (little brown jobs) or the most exciting tufted titmouse. She is a single copy-editor for a right-wing website who has a motorcyclist boyfriend named Blaze. Everything in her life is fair game for her father to hold up for inspection and gentle mockery as Christopher Patrick Mullen as John can put a spin on the most casual observations. Micheline Wu as Caitlyn can prod her father for her mother’s desired trips to Italy or Costa Rica which get huge resistance from her father on the basis of how damaging the carbon footprint of world travelers are.
Their time together enjoying nature in the backyard does not seem to be bringing them closer together as over the course of a decade, we observe her struggle with boyfriends, pregnancies and jobs and he has his own checked relationship with jobs and his wife yet seem neither to bring much comfort or solace to each other. They have a conspiracy against others holed up in the backyard but John’s encouragement of his daughter was reduced to a pat on the shoulder.
Micheline Wu was extraordinarily sympathetic in her energy and optimism coursing through every scene. Her monologue about her miscarriage late in the play had the large audience rapt. We were observing nature from a hunting blind fearful of disturbing or missing an exquisite, excruciating detail.
Christopher Patrick Mullen is a fascinating actor, exceptionally well cast here. He is always very active making choices of what he does with his voice and body, he is rarely still and there is always a very keen, lacerating intelligence working hard, evident in his listening and reactions. The best scene in the play is powered by his outrage over his daughter’s simple statement that she likes working for the oil and gas industry. His outsize reaction belittling her precipitates her shocking reaction. It was a horrible and necessary punch to the gut for the audience.
The backyard consisting of the back of a beautiful and large white bricked house which has a door and window, two lawn chairs and a rake designed by Ed Check is one of the cleanest and most non-descript you could imagine. The business dealing with the leaves at the end of the play is ridiculous. Lara Dubin gives us sweet Fall days and has nice lighting effects at the end. I loved how the play moved from scene to scene with the audience filling in details. Micheline had minimal costume changes midway through the play but for the most part the two wore the same well-chosen outfits by Anna Sorrentino. There were many sound cues of bird life well chosen by Tom Shread.
This play is quintessential Chester with its small cast, single set and superlative acting that explores how we live now and what matters to us. Go see it and add it to your birder’s journal of Berkshire theater that matters.
Through 7/17 at Chester Theater Company