Review by Brittany Crowell
Where the Mountain Meets the Sea by Jeff Augustin (MTC alumni – The New Englanders and a writer on the hit TV show “The Morning Show”) with music by the Bengsons (of 100 Days at Joe’s Pub and Ars Nova’s The Lucky Ones) recalls, sings, dances, mourns, and rejoices in the journeys of father and son as they navigate America, identity, loneliness, and family.
The piece, directed by Joshua Kahan Brody and performing at MTC at New York City Center’s Stage I, is structured as a series of monologues and songs following Jean, a Haitian immigrant, as he leaves his homeland and journeys to America and simultaneously hearing from his son, Jonah, who (while born in the USA) is struggling with similar questions of heritage, identity, and belonging.
Penned by Augustin, the piece, with just two cast members and a two person band, is small but full of heart. After the passing of his father, Jonah decides to retrace his parent’s cross-country road trip just before his birth, but in reverse. He hops from greyhound to Amtrak to carpool, searching for something that will bring him closer to understanding his mother and his father, something that will give him the same sense of tenderness when he hears the sound of his name through the mouth of another. As father and son travel in opposing directions through different decades, each character brings a new and exciting energy to the piece.
As performed by Billy Eugene Jones, Jean is incessantly optimistic, dancing around the stage, traipsing its curves and levels. Meanwhile, Jonah, performed with careful precision by Chris Myers, is more cautious; navigating identifying as a gay man in an immigrant family in the US has made him more hesitant to let down his guard or let others in.
Their paths intersect through “Mountain Music” (as Jean calls it), the folk music of both America and Haiti. The band (with songs penned and performed by The Bengsons) plays its own role in the piece, providing an achingly emotional take on the songs of a Tennessee bar, a husband’s pining for a dead wife, a son seeking connection with his deceased father. The voices of both Abigail and Shaun Bengson enrich the pieces, and their music gives a heartbeat to the journey that father and son take separately, but also together.
The scenic design by Arnulfo Maldonado and lighting design by Stacey Derosier live in similar symbiosis. The back wall of the stage features a three-dimensional mountain which begins backlit by a deep aquatic blue; so blue that you can almost place yourself in the Haitian Ocean – in the memories of the sea, in a lovers’ eyes. As the piece continues the light shifts between this blue to a tender orange sun, to an animated dance floor fuchsia, a lush mountainous green. Textured mirrors on either side of the stage create a mountainous expanse and a sense of self-reflection as the characters traverse and find vulnerability around the rounded stage of exposed wood.
Every road is a circle – We see the story unfold before us like faded memories providing fragments of truth as father and son piece together their independent yet irrevocably connected stories. As the mountains of America meet the deep blue Haitian sea, we are reminded that sometimes we need to turn around, hold ourselves open, and look back in order to understand more clearly who we truly are.
WHERE THE MOUNTAIN MEETS THE SEA – by Jeff Augustin; music by The Bengsons
Directed by Joshua Kahan Brody
WITH – Abigail Bengson (band); Shaun Bengson (band); Billy Eugene Jones (Jean); Chris Myers (Jonah)
Scenic design by Arnulfo Maldonado; Costume design by Dominique Fawn Hill; lighting design by Stacey Derosier; sound design by Ben Truppin-Brown; dramaturgy by Sarah Lunnie; movement by Steph Paul. Presented by Manhattan Theater Club: Lynne Meadow, artistic director; Barry Grove, executive producer; at MTC at New York City Center – Stage I TICKETS. website