Reviewed by Judy Richter
Nearly 70 years ago, Japan and people of Japanese descent were viewed as America's enemy. Today, in the lobby of the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, there's a Red Cross donation box for victims of the recent devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan. This shift in attitude is both welcome and ironic, for the prejudice against Japanese people as seen in TheatreWorks' production of "Snow Falling on Cedars" can be seen today in prejudice against Muslims and people perceived to be of Middle Eastern extraction. There's a sad timelessness to the play, which Kevin McKeon adapted from David Guterson's 1994 novel.
Set primarily in a small town on an island in Washington's Puget Sound, the action deftly shifts between 1954 and the 1930s and '40s. If told chronologically, the plot would start with the young love between a Caucasian boy, Ishmael Chambers (Will Collyer), and a Japanese American girl, Hatsue Imada (Maya Erskine). Despite their feelings for each other, she realizes that it's impossible for them to be married. Then they are cruelly separated when Hatsue and her Japanese-born parents (Mia Tagano and Randall Nakano) are sent to the Manzanar internment camp in the California desert along with other Japanese residents after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the start of World War II. While there, Hatsue marries another islander, Kabuo Miyamoto (Tim Chiou), who serves in the U.S. Army. Ishmael also serves in the Army and loses his left arm in battle.
The 1954 action is mainly set in a courtroom where Kabuo is on trial for the murder of a fellow fisherman and longtime friend, Carl Heine Jr. (Will Springhorn Jr.). Things look bad for Kabuo until Ishmael, now the publisher of his late father's newspaper, uncovers evidence that will exonerate him. Still in love with Hatsue and unable to get on with his life, Ishmael must decide whether to inform the court about his find.
It's a fascinating story with rich characterizations by the cast's 12 actors, several of whom play multiple roles. Besides Collyer as Ishmael and Erskine as Hatsue, standouts include Edward Sarafian as Kabuo's defense attorney; Mark Anderson Phillips as the prosecuting attorney, coroner and others; Anne Darragh as Carl's mother, Ishmael's mother and a hematologist; and Kevin Rolston as the investigating officer and others. Robert Kelley's direction and Fumiko Bielefeldt's costumes facilitate the changes in character and era. In the meantime, Andrea Bechert's set, Steven B. Mannshardt's lighting and Gregory Robinson's sounds allow for seamless changes in location.
Thus the audience is treated to a love story and a mystery as well as an in-depth study of how prejudice can poison a community and its citizens. Except for an over-long summary speech by the defense attorney, the play's 2½ hours pass quickly.