Commissioned by the 2020 Humana Festival of New American Plays at the Actors Theatre of Louisville, Where the Mountain Meets the Sea by Haitian-American writer Jeff Augustin is now playing a limited engagement with Manhattan Theatre Club at New York City Center. The unassuming but affecting production combines segments of direct-address storytelling interspersed with emotionally expressive folk songs to follow the paths of an immigrant father and his now adult son on a quest to connect with each other, which they realize too late that they should have done sooner.
Presented in an experimental non-linear format, the Haitian-born father Jean recounts memories of his home country, then tells of the momentous road trip he made from Miami to California. His reminiscences alternate with those of his gay son Jonah, making the same trip in reverse years later, to collect his father’s ashes to return them to Haiti, and to better understand Jean’s life journey. Both share the defining experiences they had en route and the people they loved along the way, including Jonah’s late mother, in an intimate examination of their two disparate lives and the differences they didn’t discuss that kept them apart.
Directed by Joshua Kahan Brody, the actors, with hand-held mics, move to various points around the stage to tell their stories, or sit quietly reflecting when the other one is speaking, without ever having a conversation or physical interaction while relaying their individual remembrances. Billy Eugene Jones as Jean is more robust in tone, occasionally breaking into song and dance and delivering lines in his native Haitian Creole dialect. Chris Myers as Jonah is more soft-spoken, pensive, and sweeter, revealing incidents of homophobia since the age of four, but also expressing moments of joy and happiness with the men he met, including a high-energy scene of dancing, joined by Shaun Bengson as his “ginger daddy.” Both are engaging, sensitive, and sympathetic as they go back and forth in their respective monologues and in time, until they release their internalized feelings and thoughts, and find common ground in their mutual awareness and self-discovery.
The beautiful sentiments of the lyrical production are echoed in the songs of the award-winning musical duo The Bengsons (the married couple Abigail and Shaun), who sing, play, and live loop their original folk compositions in the background and interact with the characters in a few of the scenes, as they make their way across country and become familiar with the varied regions of America. She impresses with her extraordinary vocal range, he with his comically exuberant dance (movement by Steph Paul), both with their masterful musicianship. Unlike a traditional stage musical, the songs don’t advance the plot but enhance it and underscore its moods.
An understated but evocative artistic design also contributes well to the show’s clear and simple human significance. Costumes by Dominique Fawn Hill are typical of the characters’ generations and Ben Truppin-Brown’s sound is indicative of their recollections. Colorful lighting by Stacey Derosier changes with the locations, times, and states of mind, and Arnulfo Maldonado’s bare-stage set of low concentric platforms before a backdrop of mountains mirrored in reflecting panels on both sides evokes both the titular landscape and the heartfelt observation that “every road is a circle” and “I’m turning around/So I can see your face again.”
Where the Mountain Meets the Sea is a uniquely touching tale of family, heritage, connection, and legacy, with a salient reminder not to delay your love, appreciation, communication, and empathy.
Running Time: Approximately 70 minutes, without intermission.
Where the Mountain Meets the Sea plays through Sunday, November 27, 2022, at Manhattan Theatre Club, performing at New York City Center, Stage I, 131 West 55th Street, NYC. For tickets (priced at $79-99, including fees), call (212) 581-1212, or go online. Masks must be worn at all times.