A son seeks his estranged father in powerful ‘Where the Mountain Meets the Sea,’ at Signature Theatre

Through the poetry of music and the poetry of words, four storytellers bring a son closer to his father and a father closer to his son.

After an estranged father passes, his son reverses the Miami-to-LA journey his Haitian parents took before he was born in order to deliver his father’s ashes to the grave of his mother. From the buses, trains, and cars along this LA-to-Miami-to-Haiti trip, Jonah comes to know his father through the places visited and the songs he encounters along the way, even though decades apart. Time, melody, and story become one in this DC premiere at Signature Theatre. From playwright Jeff Augustin, with music by The Bengsons, and directed by Timothy Douglas, Where the Mountain Meets the Sea is as quiet and as powerful as both the tallest peaks and the loudest crashing waves of its title — interlacing monologue with the mountain music of our hearts and the homes we carry with us along the way.

Tall and slender as the trees atop the mountain, Jean played by Robert Cornelius is in the sunset of his days. With the cadence of an old man recounting his life — half memorized, half improvised — his words echo storytelling traditions of the elders. Speaking with a percussive style of starts and stops, whether needing to pause for breath or for memory, Cornelius was a warm voice that concerned itself more with the story being told than the time being spent, or the notes being sung.

Robert Cornelius (Jean), Rob Morrison, Awa Sal Secka, and Isaac “Deacon Izzy” Bell (Jonah) in ‘Where the Mountain Meets the Sea.’ Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Soft, fluid, and appearingly impulsive like the sea was his son, Jonah played by Isaac “Deacon Izzy” Bell. Journeying in the opposite direction, Bell unfolded from out of a man once only interested in hiding himself to one aching for the fulfillment that comes from being truly seen and loved. Softly, gently, persistently this production pulls Jonah (and the audience) back through the pain of closing himself off and holds him through the bravery it takes to open back up again.

Weaving in and out of the monologues are the voices of Rob Morrison and Awa Sal Secka. Musicians up on a stage, their choreography was just as impactful and intentional as that of father and son — stepping down or out or across, infusing moments with layered or suggested meaning for the audience to accept. Sorrowful and warm, Sal Secka’s tone was particularly mesmerizing. I found myself watching her long after the scene had transitioned back to spoken word, her every gesture thoughtful and intent. Morrison brought a brightness signature to the folk or bluegrass music most often associated with Appalachia and voices from the heart. Together with Sal Secka, they beautifully dueted across guitar, banjo, drums, and more — just as important as the words being spoken, were the lyrics being sung.

Combined, these four storytellers created a concept-album-like trance throughout the show, moving through the poetry of music and the poetry of words to bring a son closer to his father and a father closer to his son. The production carefully leaves a trail of clues and connections for the audience to follow and trusts that we are smart enough, compassionate enough, to follow them without assistance or heavy-handed repetition.

TOP: Rob Morrison and Awa Sal Secka; ABOVE: Robert Cornelius (Jean) and Isaac “Deacon Izzy” Bell (Jonah), in ‘Where the Mountain Meets the Sea.’ Photos by Christopher Mueller.

Staged like the folk music concerts in those back bars that Jonah (protests he) dislikes, the scenic design by Tony Cisek is a simple raised platform, a fourth wall within a story in a round. But for me, the standout element was the beautifully inlaid and lit river that traced the top of the walls of the space. As alive as the story and as fluid as the music, it was a literal and artful throughline to the tale unfolding. Choreography by Dane Figueroa Edidi, music direction by Rob Morrison, costume design by Moyenda Kulemeka, lighting design by Harold F. Burgess II, and sound design by Eric Norris all gently layered on top of each other, not calling attention away but enhancing the world being built on stage and in the minds of the audience members.

Looking around it was clear that several of my fellow audience members were going on their own journey, sparked by — but entirely separate from — the one on the stage as they watched. Another powerful feature of the production: it gives you as much as you give it of yourself, your empathy, and your memories of connections or relationships with loved ones past. For Where the Mountain Meets the Sea at Signature Theatre, it’s in hoping that you can find peace as we return to ourselves and each other once more.

Running Time: Approximately 80 minutes, with no intermission.

Where the Mountain Meets the Sea plays through July 7, 2024, in the Ark Theatre at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA. For tickets ($25–$50) call (703) 820-9771 or purchase online. Information about ticket discounts is available here.

The program for Where the Mountain Meets the Sea is online here.

Closed captions are available via the GalaPro app.

COVID Safety: Masks are always optional but strongly encouraged in the lobby and other public areas of the building. Face masks are required inside the performance spaces on June 2 at 2 PM and June 25 at 7:30 PM but strongly encouraged inside the performance spaces at other performances. Signature’s COVID Safety Measures can be found here.

Where the Mountain Meets the Sea

CAST
Isaac “Deacon Izzy” Bell: Jonah
Robert Cornelius: Jean
Rob Morrison: Musician and Music Director
Awa Sal Secka: Musician

CREATIVE
Written by Jeff Augustin
Music by The Bengsons
Directed by Timothy Douglas
Choreographed by Dane Figueroa Edidi
Music Directed by Rob Morrison
Scenic Design by Tony Cisek
Costume Design by Moyenda Kulemeka
Lighting Design by Harold F. Burgess II
Sound Design by Eric Norris
Casting by Jorge Acevedo
Production Stage Manager: Samantha Wilhelm
Production Assistant: Jessica Hagy

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