Shadows on the Rising Sun
by Michael Dresdner
L to R: Kathy Hsieh, Susan Mayeno, Eloisa Cardone, Aya Hashiguchi, Joy Misako St. Germain Photo by Jason Ganwich
Dukesbay Productions opened its season last night with a flawless and gripping presentation of Velina Hasu Houston’s play Tea. With it, the fledgling company has definitively affirmed its credentials as a top notch theatre group, laying to rest any suspicion that last year’s Driving Miss Daisy was merely a fluke. Yes, they still dispense such candy floss as Java Tacoma, but clearly, they can deliver the goods as well.
The play opens as the lights go up on a beautiful, crisply serene teahouse with low table, sliding shoji screens, and a sweeping, sumi-e style backdrop. Foreshadowing the conflicts to come, Kate Smith sings “God Bless America,” followed by Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man,” which in turn gives way to a calming, traditional, Japanese samisen song. In spite of appearances, we are just outside Ft. Riley in Junction City, Kansas, and the year is 1968.
Himiko (Eloisa Cardone) steps out on stage, barefoot and bewigged, her forlornly slack kimono draped over her “American” dress. She launches into a powerfully heart-wrenching disgorgement of emotion, revealing years of pain, disappointment, and betrayal. Then, with dignity and hope both exhausted, she takes her own life.
From that moment on, the five women of Tea will hold you in thrall through an intimate, deeply evocative journey into the lives and travails of Japanese “war brides” striving to survive in post-war America.
By the time the virtual curtain dropped some 90 minutes later, my stomach was clenched and my mouth parched. This play was that powerful.
While gathered to deal with the aftermath of Himiko’s suicide, four other brides, each with a decidedly different story and finely crafted characters to match, sip tea and recount the past so vividly it comes alive. All five, the living and dead, tell their stories through flashbacks, at times portraying their younger selves both here and in Japan, their very Americanized children, and even their occasionally boorish husbands.
All giddily in love at the time they wed, these five women had no idea what cultural bias and upheaval they’d face stateside once their military husbands brought them “home.” Aided by well-chosen costumes and props, they flesh out their stories.
There’s Himiko Hamilton, married to an abusive Southern redneck and trying to cling to her dignity in the face of egregious hurts, and magnificently brought alive in an absolutely stellar performance by Eloisa Cardone.
Like a still, deep lake, Teruko MacKenzie (Joy Misako St. Germain) is an anchor of serenity, so contentedly devoted to her husband that even her daughter feels some slight.
Setsuko Banks (Susan Mayeno ) copes surprisingly well, her Asian fortitude as her bulwark against the added disdain she had no idea would come from having married a “black” soldier.
Atsuko Yamamoto (Aya Hashiguchi) married a Japanese-American, and wears her haughty superiority proudly, seeing herself as therefore more Japanese than the others.
The most Americanized of all, Chizuye Juarez (Kathy Hsieh) wears slacks and has mastered not only English (replete with requisite nicknames,) but much of her accent as well, perhaps an overreaction to her Latino husband.
The entire ensemble cast is amazing, individually and together. These are all performances of the highest caliber, and every one of these women deserves the loftiest praise an actor can get.
Technical support is no less. Adroitly directed by Randy Clark, the play unfolds on a wonderful set designed by Burton Yuen and built by Hector Juarez, with a divine bamboo and wood floor painted by Jen Ankrum and Blake York, and a sweeping sumi-e backdrop designed by Lois Yoshida and painted by Steve Chanfrau. Nicolas Olson and Bethany Bevier did the excellent sound and lighting design, and Jeffery Weaver assembled a flawless array of costumes and props. During one segue there’s a moving, period-evocative slide show by Mick Flaaen.
I really can’t say enough good things about this play, so I’ll stop here. Suffice it to say this is everything great theatre is meant to be; a gripping story, magnificent acting, and ideal technical support. In short, this is one production you really don’t want to miss.
Oct. 30 to Nov. 16, 2014