Saturday, April 16, 2011

"Snow Falling on Cedars": ☼ ☼ ☼

It probably helps if you've read the book before you see Theatreworks' Regional Premiere of David Guterson's "Snow Falling on Cedars." The show was originally adapted for the stage by Kevin McKeon and Seattle's Book-It Repertory Theatre, which means it is a fascinating hybrid: the actors quote passages from the book as well as act out well chosen scenes. Guterson's best seller from 1994 is filled with many poetic passages and it would be a shame to miss them; at the same time the cast is excellent and they get a chance to act as well as narrate.

Andrea Bechert's Scenic Design is another hybrid -- a lovely cross between a Japanese woodcut and a busy courtroom in Puget Sound, Washington, circa 1954.

Maya Erskine plays Hatsue, the young Japanese-American girl whose world falls apart as the aftershock of Pearl Harbor hits the West Coast of America. It doesn't help that she has had an innocent romance with Ishmael Chambers, son of the local newspaper publisher. When Hatsue's family is relocated with all other Japanese-American families to Manzanar in the Mojave Desert, and Ishamel is drafted to serve in the Pacific, events are put in motion that culminate in the trial for murder of Ishmael's long-time friend Kabuo Miyamoto (Tim Chiou), who has met and married Hatsue in Manzanar.

We get excellent performances as well by Molly Benson as Susan Heine, wife of the murder victim and Edward Sarafian, as the older lawyer defending Kabuo Miyamoto. But the heart of the story is the relationship between Hatsue, Ishmael and Kabuo. If this production has a flaw it is that we understand Hatsue and Kabuo, but Ishmael remains underdeveloped.

Though supposedly the same age, Collyer plays Ishamel like a boy, and Chiou's Kabuo is a man. It would be curious to see what would have happened if they'd cast it the other way around -- but the way it is, we can't see how Hatsue could pick differently, even without the racial prejudice of the world in which she lives. Sadly, it is Ishmael's story and relationship with his father, so interesting in the book, which has been condensed out of the theater version.

Mia Tagano and Randall Nakano are fine as Hatsue's parents, and Mark Anderson Phillips is a perfectly pompous prosecutor, though he would be more effective if we didn't keep seeing him as Richard Hannay in The Thirty Nine Steps. That's what happens when you're so good in one role -- the critics won't leave you alone.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼

The San Francisco Theater Blog awards "Snow Falling on Cedars" Three Stars. It was fascinating to watch, involving from beginning to end and had several knockout acting performances. The lack of Ishmael's character development hurts the story, but perhaps only to those of us who loved the book. Robert Kelley's direction moves us quickly from scene to narration and back again. It's all about the story, which is how it should be.

"Snow Falling on Cedars"
Mountain View Center for Performing Arts
500 Castro Street, Mountain View
Through April 24

Photo Credit: Tracy Martin and Mark Kitaoka

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