‘Snow Falling on Cedars’ skillfully explores wartime prejudice


IN LOVE AND TROUBLE — Love blossoms in Manzanar, Calif. for Kabuo Miyamoto (Tim Chiou) and Hatsue Imada (Maya Erskine). photo by Tracy Martin

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — The Japanese American concentration camps of World War II provide a compelling backdrop for the excellent theatrical production of “Snow Falling on Cedars.” Based on David Guterson’s 1994 best-selling novel, the play offers a potent mix of romance and whodunit, as well as an exploration of the issue of prejudice against Japanese Americans during the war.

Presented at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts until April 24, “Snow Falling on Cedars” is a faithful adaptation by Kevin McKeon. Produced by TheatreWorks and directed by Robert Kelley, the play features an exceptional cast that brings the complex story to life through engaging and memorable characters. The production’s sets and costumes are also first-rate and perfectly set the mood of the piece.

Shifting back and forth in time, the story seamlessly moves among such settings as a forest, a courtroom and a battlefield. The actors capably handle the flashbacks, keeping the production lively and intriguing.

Set on the island of Puget Sound in Washington state, the story focuses on the budding childhood romance between Hatsue Imada (Maya Erskine), who is Japanese American, and Ishmael Chambers (Will Collyer), who is Caucasian. The idyllic scenes in which Hatsuo and Ishmael secretly meet — inside the hollow of a large cedar tree and at the beach — are moving and beautifully captured.

However, following the onset of World War II, the pair is separated after Ishmael is sent to the Pacific. Then, Hatsue and her parents are imprisoned in the Manzanar, Calif. concentration camp. The play skillfully captures the difficulties of living in camp.

Hatsue tells the audience, “We were given a 16-by-20 foot room furnished by a single light bulb. We ate standing up.”

After writing to Ishmael to tell him that their relationship is over, Hatsue subsequently meets and falls in love with a man at the camp, Kabuo Miyamoto (Tim Chiou).

The scenes of Manzanar are eloquent. In one particularly memorable scene, Hatsue and her husband discover the challenges of trying to find privacy during their honeymoon while her parents sit on the other side of a cloth partition inside their small living space.

After the war ends, Hatsue and Kabuo resume their lives in Washington state. Kabuo is subsequently suspected of killing Carl Heine Jr. (Will Springhorn Jr.), on a boat one foggy night at sea. A scene in which Kabuo and Carl argue on the boat is gripping and powerful.

During the trial, lingering feelings of prejudice against the Japanese Americans after the war cast doubt on whether justice will be rightfully served. In the courtroom, Hatsue once again faces Ishmael, who is now a newspaper editor covering the story. Since the war ended, Ishmael has continued to struggle with feelings of prejudice and unrequited love for Hatsue. Ishmael’s transformation over the course of the play lies at the heart of the story.

The play engages the audience with a story that combines elements of drama and suspense while also relating Japanese Americans’ experiences in the concentration camps during World War II.

“Snow Falling on Cedars” continues through April 24 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View, Calif. Tickets cost $24-$67. For more information, call (650) 463-1960 or visit www.theatreworks.org.

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