In Birds of North America, a 2019 play by Anna Ouyang Moench now playing at Urbanite Theatre in Sarasota, John and his daughter Caitlyn are at odds about everything — jobs, family, politics — but they find common ground in bird-watching.
Or rather, as John reminds Caitlyn, “birding.”
John, a scientist, is a man who prides himself in knowing what words to use: “It’s just about being precise.”
Caitlyn’s a word person, too. In her late 20s when the play begins, she’s a frustrated novelist working as a copy editor.
Yet a central irony of the play, which unfolds over a decade of birding sessions in the backyard of John’s suburban Baltimore home, is the inability of father and daughter to find words that reach each other. When they’re not peering through their binoculars and John’s not recording species in his beloved notebook, they converse haltingly until one or the other brings up a topic that touches a nerve — in particular, the politics of climate change.
John is passionate, even doctrinaire, about the threat of global warming, and he’s infuriated that Caitlyn works for a right-leaning website. She insists it’s just a job, but he accuses her of being a “mercenary.” Later in the play, after she takes a job writing marketing copy for a firm that promotes fracking, he moves from name-calling to outright cruelty.
“Does it feel good to have made an entire career out of profiting off the suffering of others?” Knowing that she has suffered four miscarriages (which we’ve learned from a devastating scene earlier in the play), he continues, “Oh. Is that what this is about. You can’t have children so you’re taking the rest of the world down with you.”
But she knows how to hit where it hurts, too. The income earned by her mother, a physician, has allowed her father to spend decades on his vaccine research. When he lectures Caitlyn that she doesn’t have to take a job just for the money, she responds, “Well I don’t have a well-paid spouse to support my pipe dreams.”
Even as they wound each other with words, we understand that this family is devoted to one another. There’s a lovely passage in which John describes the solar-powered heating system he designed “so your mom doesn’t get her feet cold,” and moments of quiet pride when he sees how thoroughly Caitlyn has taken to birding. Under the direction of Summer Wallace, actors Stephen Spencer and Deyki Rongé give nicely modulated, believable performances as father and daughter. The design team has done a masterful job transforming Urbanite’s compact space into an autumnal Maryland backyard, with avian anatomical drawings as backdrop and sound effects of birdsong.
But while I grant that families often get mired in intractable arguments, listening to John and Caitlyn rehash their grievances over an intermissionless 90 minutes can get a bit wearisome. There’s plenty to like about this play — and plenty to think about in the issues it raises about global vs. personal responsibility — but Birds of North America never quite manages to soar.
Birds of North America Urbanite Theatre, 1487 Second St., Sarasota. Through Feb. 12: Wed.-Thurs., 7:30 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; and Sat.-Sun., 2 p.m. $7-$41. 941-321-1397, urbanitetheatre.com/birdsofnorthamerica.