Snow Falling on Cedars

by Lauren Yarger

Like the unrelenting snow that covers a peaceful fishing village in December 1954, a cloud of underlying prejudice and mistrust envelopes residents struggling to come to grips with the aftermath of World War II and with the apparent murder of one of their own in Snow Falling on Cedars playing at Hartford Stage.

David Guterson's best-selling novel and the popular film based on it tell the story of the trial of Japanese-American, Kabua Miyamoto (Brian Tee), accused of killing Carl Heine (Ted Koch), 10 years after the war when Japanese residents on the Puget Sound Island were rounded up and sent to internment camps. Newspaper editor Ishmael Chambers (Dashielle Eaves) covers the trial and remembers how things used to be before he lost an arm fighting the Japanese in battle. Then a younger Kabuo and Carl were fishing buddies and Kabuo's wife, Hatsue Imada (Kimiye Corwin), and Ishmael had been in love.

During the trial, it comes to light that Kabuo's family had been just two payments away from owning the land on which they farmed strawberries for Karl's father when they were interred. Mrs. Heine (Kate Levy) refused to honor the agreement and sold the land to someone else. Since Kabuo feels cheated, some suspect he might have a motive for the murder. Or is Kabuo just the victim of prejudice and hatred that has been festering for the last decade?

Kevin McKeon's meticulous attempt to recreate the book on stage is unfortunately flawed by his use of collective narrative style and a disjointed time line to tell the tale. The result is a lot of confusion as individual histories are related from each character's perspectives with even stage directions at times part of the narration. The story also jumps in time — from the trial to before the war, to after the war, to during the war, often with the time lines overlapping. " I see you've replaced the mooring line," says one character at the time of the murder. Without skipping a beat, the present-day courtroom prosecutor then asks that same character what the significance of the mooring line is. Worse, we're not really sure whose memory we're seeing played out. Actors playing multiple roles (the 12 member ensemble plays 28 characters) adds to the confusion, which is made more annoying by the way director Jeremy B. Cohen moves them around the stage by

At times, a part of the stage (set design by Takeshi Kata) rotates; other times, two large planks split or turn and people seem always to be walking up and down them or jumping across them for no apparent reason. The effect is that of a lot of people walking around, halting exposition to to act out a scene, perhaps from the present, perhaps from the past. Flashbacks like this don't work well on the stage unless they are anchored and here this little fishing village seems caught in a perpetual wave. Also out of place are the effects used to have Carl's body fly, first tangled in the nets of his boat where he is found, then lying on the coroner's table, up behind the backdrop while corresponding action takes place elsewhere on stage.

The rotating stage is used to best effect in a scene where newlyweds Kabuo and Hatsue share her parents' cramped quarters at Manzanar on their wedding night. Her mother, Fujiko Imada (Mia Tagano) and father, Hisao (Ron Nakahara) hang blankets to divide the room and as it turns, we see the young couple tentatively preparing for bed while on the other side, the parents try not to listen. It's tender, humorous and very touching, and a tribute to the skills of the four strong actors in this scene.

Another strong scene shows Kabuo sparring against his drill sergeant when he serves in the US Army during the war. The good acting and tender humor make us wish all of the scenes could have just been told as one long flashback without all of the interruption.

A notable performance is turned in by Levy, who plays Ishmael's kind-hearted mother. Carl's heartless mother and a doctor giving expert testimony at the trial are also convincing and distinctive. ( owever, one can't help questioning why a community still so prejudiced against enemies from the war doesn't have any issues with German-accented Etta Heine, however). Some performances are weaker, particularly Eaves' who delivers most of Ishmael's lines in a monotone shout.

The compelling story of love, forgiveness and prejudice comes through despite the staging problems, however, though the play's cinclusion in this adaptation, originally commissioned by Book-It Repertory Theatre in Seattle, may leave some, particularly fans of the book, feeling a little unsatisfied.

 

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