The success of many theatrical productions hinges on the much-vaunted “chemistry” between two leading actors, particularly when they comprise the entire cast.
That’s why the greatest triumph of Mosaic Theater’s “Birds of North America” may be the striking synergy between Regina Aquino (Caitlyn) and David Bryan Jackson (John) — because they achieve that synergy in portraying a daughter and father who struggle to connect at all.
Together, these actors and their insightful director, Serge Seiden, peel away the layers of a fraught relationship in a way that is not only effective but moving as well.
Caitlyn and John are nearly polar opposites except in one respect: their shared desire to find some thread of mutual understanding. Like so many children and parents who communicate in a stream of disagreements and sometimes hurtful slights, they have found neutral ground in a hobby. Playwright Anna Ouyang Moench has placed that hobby, birding, at the center of the play, using it as an often brilliant device.
For Moench’s characters, birding in the backyard is a platform for observing and arguing about not just birds but also a host of topics: the degraded environment and our obligation (or lack thereof) to help save the planet, their respective life paths and searing disappointments, and their family’s evolution over the course of 10 years. But most of all, birding together is a testament to their love, expressed in Caitlyn’s determination to pursue an activity that barely sparks her interest and John’s abiding enthusiasm for sharing his passion for birding with her.
Aquino, who has delivered outstanding performances on local stages since 2002, brings Caitlyn’s youthful optimism to life in broad smiles and frequent giggles. But over the years spanned in the play, she slowly exposes the depth of emotion that Caitlyn’s sunny affect attempts to conceal.
Jackson tackles a different challenge, creating a character who is so subtle and restrained that his feelings and regrets may surface only in the slightest wince or halting step. He is a wonder to observe, especially to a theater-goer more accustomed to seeing him in small supporting roles.
Anchoring the characters to their common ground, set designer Alexa Ross has created a naturalistic space that feels far more expansive than the small stage it occupies. Combined with Brittany Shemuga’s dappled lighting and sound designer David Lamont Wilson’s symphony of chirps, tweets and trills, you can easily imagine birds in flight every time Caitlyn and John tilt their binoculars toward the sky. This is where they go to catch fleeting glimpses of each other, along with the elusive birds they track.
“Birds of North America,” at Mosaic Theater through November 21.