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Snow Drifts: Snow Falling on Cedars

Everything is point of view, when you get right down to it. On the on hand, Center Stage's production of "Snow Falling on Cedars" could be described as a cornucopia of dramatic delights-as the press release notes, this play, based on the 1994 novel of the same name, is "a love story, a murder mystery and a courtroom drama."  It's also a glimpse at one of the darkest and least discussed chapters in America's history, when prejudice fueled by war hysteria resulted in thousands of Japanese-Americans being interred in concentration camps  (not to be confused with the more infamous Nazi death camps).

On the other hand, one could also say that "Snow" is a lot like a snowstorm--lots of different themes drift across the stage, leaving the audience wondering, what's the main thrust, what's this play really about? (As my theater companion noted, referencing a classic Saturday Night Live bit, "Is it a floor wax or a dessert topping??") When a play tries to be so many things it takes the risk of doing none of them well.

Fortunately, Center Stage is aided by a stellar cast, led by Laura Kai Chen as Hatsue and Kenneth Lee as Kabuo. Hatsue forms a childhood friendship and adolescent romance with Ishmael (Timothy Sekk) which is clearly doomed, especially once news of Pearl Harbor strikes the Pacific Northwest fishing community of San Piedro Island where they live.

Hatsue forms a new relationship with Kabuo who only seeks to marry, start a strawberry farm and serve his country, which he does with distinction, in World War II. The Hatsue-Ishmael-Kabuo triangle form the love story. The murder mystery arises in the peculiar death of fisherman Carl Heine, Jr., (Danny Gavigan), who is found caught in his own fishing nets, his lungs full of water and his head bashed in, as though struck with a "a Japanese gun butt," or so speculates the town doctor.

Carl's family (specifically, the bigoted Etta Heine, played with delicious bitterness by Kristin Griffith), was involved in a squabble with Hatsue's family over the ownership of seven acres of land and you can see where this is headed, especially as evidence arises that Kabuo's own boat may have encountered Heine's the night of his death. Did Kabuo kill Carl? There's your murder mystery, and if someone is murdered, some one has to be charged (Kabuo) and that drops us smack dab into a courtroom drama.

Kabuo is defended by attorney Nels Gundmundsson (Michael McKenzie, who appears to be channeling David Strathairn) who senses Kabuo is covering up something. Kabuo sits in the courtroom, ramrod straight, his face a mask of non-emotion, stereotypically "inscrutable" as his non-Asian neighbors whisper among  themselves. What's Kabuo hiding? Did he encounter Carl that foggy, fateful night?

The play undergoes numerous time shifts, providing exposition and insights into the assorted characters--we learn, for example, why Ishmael first appears on stage missing an arm--the chronological changes brought home by a literal turn of the stage, which rotates, an effect perhaps unnecessary, and in fact, a tad distracting as there were a few times I was concerned actors performing on the stage's edge might find themselves knocked over into the orchestra pit.  

"Snow Falling on Cedars" is a daunting production as it sets the bar very high in terms of all it sets out to accomplish--in addition to the elements already noted in this review, the play even reaches for humor, such as where Kabuo shows up his army drill instructor (Neal Hemphill) with his knowledge of kendo;  Kabuo and Hatsue's privacy-challenged wedding night, and most scenes involving actor Owen Scott (Abel Martinson), the "deputy Fife" of the town, who can't seem to stop throwing up.

The play, thankfully, is never preachy in its attack on prejudice and the abomination which was the internment camps, a supposed impossibility in the land of the free and home of the brave. Veteran actors Glenn Kubota (Hisao Imada/Mr. Nitta/Zenhichi Miyamoto) and Ching Valdes Aran (Fujiko Imada/Mrs. Nitta) aren't given much to do in their limited roles of the eternally stoic Asian parents who bear the humiliation of being displaced from their homes with quiet reserve.

The play is also heavy on narration as characters spend more time telling their stories than they do actually "living" them on stage--don't tell us, show us.  But again, it's the challenge of transforming all the complexities and details of a 460-page novel into a 2-hour and 10 minute play (including a 15-minute intermission).

All this being said, "Snow Falling on Cedars" is riveting entertainment as one watches so much unfold on stage, accomplished with the usual Center Stage-caliber aplomb--creative, "less-is-more" sets, spot-on period costumes; lighting and sound that add appropriately to each scene, and above all, superb acting and direction.

"Snow Falling on Cedars" continues its run at Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert Street, now through April 3rd in the Pearlstone Theater. Tickets range in price from $10 to $55 and are available at or by calling the box office at 410-332-0033.

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From This Author Daniel Collins