Snow" Sketchy and Inconsistent

by David A. Rosenberg

Think of your favorite novel. Wouldn’t it make a good stage play? All those characters! All those plot lines! All that scenery!

Not necessarily.

Take “Snow Falling on Cedars,” with its mystery, politics and romance. The stage version now having its East Coast premiere at Hartford Stage isn’t as long as the 345-page novel. It only feels as if it is.

David Guterson’s best seller, adapted for the stage by Kevin McKeon, was also made into an unsatisfactory film. All versions cover a vast amount of territory. Against the background of a murder trial are imposed themes of prejudice and war.

On fictional San Pedro Island near Seattle, Kabuo, a young American of Japanese descent, is on trial for murder. He had ample motivation to bash in a fisherman’s head and throw him overboard to his death. After all, they had quarreled about property the young man felt belonged to his family.

Woven into the trial proceedings are flashbacks to a romance between a young Japanese-American woman, Hatsue, and Ishmael, a reporter who lost his arm fighting in the Pacific in World War II. Kabuo fought in that war, too, but in Europe, after having been put into one of those notorious detention camps which our government deemed necessary to deter any possible acts of sabotage.

It’s here that the young Japanese-American man meets the young Japanese-American woman and marries her. Their post-nuptial coupling behind a makeshift screen of blankets while her parents sit nearby giggling like school children gets the audience giggling, too, in a scene that would not be out of place in one of those recent arrested-adolescence movies. Eventually we find out what really happened on that boat, thanks to a last-minute, cursory explanation, whizzing by so fast that your head will whirl.

All is told Story Theater style. Characters talk to the audience about themselves in the third person, as if relating a tale. When they do communicate directly to each other, it’s often in banalities like ”I don’t care what else happens in the world: we’re not going to let this hurt us” or pseudo-poetics like “Lack of purity has enveloped you. It’s like a mist around your soul.”

Not only are the relationships sketchy, so is discovering where sympathies should lie: with jilted Ishmael? with accused Kabuo? Events may be connected but little time is given to fleshing out characters and there is no true emotional depth.

Moreover, the spare production almost totally excludes the natural world, giving lie to the title. Scenes on the boat and in the forest happen on wooden platforms, quite blanding out any idea of nature’s power. Takeshi Kata’s scene design may be “theatrical” in its simplicity, but it doesn’t support the overall intent.

Awkwardly directed by Jeremy B. Cohen (a battle scene is almost silly) and inconsistently acted, the evening can’t make up its mind what it wants to be. We’re supposed to care what happens to these people, but if we never get to know them, how would caring be possible?

Taking a two-dimensional object (the novel) and cramming it into a two-hour, three-dimensional art form (the drama), isn’t easy. In Hartford, “Snow Falling on Cedars,” alas, remains two-dimensional.


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