Amy Ryan and Ebon Moss-Bachrach in On the Mountain
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Amy Ryan and Ebon Moss-Bachrach
in On the Mountain
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
"How do you not be depressed?" asks a character in Christopher Shinn's On the Mountain. In this moving and understated drama, the playwright delves into the psyches of his characters as they attempt to reconcile with their pasts while trying to make sense of their present. (A future may be too hard for them to envision.)

Sarah (Amy Ryan) is a single mother raising her 16-year-old daughter, Jaime (Alison Pill). The two had moved from Seattle to Portland following the suicide of Jason Carlyle, an ex-flame of Sarah's whom Shinn has loosely patterned after grunge rock singer Kurt Cobain. Sarah, a recovering alcoholic, has been sober since Jason's death. As the play begins, she brings home Carrick (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), a young man who may be interested in her or may simply be after a lost song recorded by Jason and rumored to be in Sarah's possession.

Music plays a huge part in the production. Jaime constantly listens to songs on her iPod and has programmed tunes to suit whatever mood she's in; Carrick remarks that this provides Jaime with her "own private soundtrack" for her life. Carrick works at the music store Sam Goody, and it's his obsessive devotion to music -- particularly to Jason's band, Ration -- that has led him to Sarah. Various musical selections are heard throughout the play, including original compositions by sound designer John Gromada. His work is expertly calibrated, presenting a full sound when required but also realistically presenting audio that is supposed to be emanating from specific parts of the stage.

Neil Patel's gorgeous set mixes kitchen-sink naturalism with more expressionistic elements. The domestic interior of Sarah and Jaime's home opens up to an expansive sky that is appropriate for the outdoor sequences in the play but also suggestive of a spiritual way of looking at the world. The title of the play is invoked as Carrick tries to convince Jaime to join him and Sarah for a trip to Mt. Rainier: "It's like seeing God," he says, trying to describe the view. However, there's a cynical edge to Shinn's writing. The trip to Mt. Rainier is spoiled by the encroachment of young kids who seem to have no appreciation for the natural beauty around them. "Is everywhere just a club, now?" Carrick asks despairingly.

The entire cast, ably directed by Jo Bonney, is excellent. Ryan's Sarah is both needy and self-sufficient; the actress projects a heartbreaking vulnerability that is keenest when Sarah talks about Jason. As Jaime, Pill is pitch-perfect in conveying her character's depression as well as her attempts to facilitate the budding romance of Sarah and Carrick. Moss-Bachrach is best when expressing his character's more sensitive side; he may sound like a stoner, but there's a reservoir of feeling inside of Carrick that the actor adeptly displays in some of the script's more emotional moments. Rounding out the cast is James Lloyd Reynolds as Phil, a recovering heroin addict whom Sarah meets at an A.A. meeting.

The characters' relationships are defined by what they don't say to each other as much as by what they articulate. All of them have an empty place inside that longs to be filled, yet they're not very good at asking for what they want or finding the proper ways to fulfill their needs. Three out of the four are either in therapy or attend A.A. support meetings; Shinn peppers the dialogue with therapy-like phrases such as "show up for your life," but such clichés never sound corny when coming out of the characters' mouths. Rather, you get the feeling that they desperately cling to these mantras in order to keep the pain of the world from overwhelming them.