Snow Falling on Cedars stars Laura Kai Chen and Timothy Sekk. (Richard Anderson Photography )
One of the ugliest chapters in American history seems all the more painful to recall right now, with the hideous toll of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan still climbing, still threatening. But that chapter — the prison camps for loyal American citizens of Japanese descent after the outbreak of World War II — provides the chilling backdrop of David Guterson's popular 1994 novel "Snow Falling on Cedars."
The book, which was turned into a film and, more recently, a play, spins a "To Kill a Mockingbird"-like tale of murder, suspicion and prejudice in the Pacific Northwest, early 1950s, filtered through the residue of anti-Japanese sentiment that the war left behind.
Currently at Center Stage, the theatrical version of "Snow Falling on Cedars," adapted by Kevin McKeon, is fueled more by good intentions than compelling dramatic devices. This is yet another play where actors take on multiple roles, an approach that might not seem so passe if it were accompanied by a more creative way of putting the story across.
The script contains an uncomfortable mix of narration and regular theater. Those narrative bits get passed around, often midsentence, by the cast, an effect that seems interesting maybe the first three or four times. And there's so much narrating that most of the scenes depicting the lives and tribulations of the characters seem shortchanged, with not much time for characters to develop.
Still, the story has its engaging elements.
There's the crime and courtroom side of things — Kabuo Miyamoto is accused of killing another fisherman, Carl Heine Jr., while the two are out on the job one foggy night. Then there's the history of Kabuo's parents, whose near-purchase of land owned by the Heine family is undone by their forced interment after Pearl Harbor.
And there's the cross-cultural love affair of Hatsue Miyamoto and Ishmael Chambers, a romance disturbed by the changes in fortune and security for Japanese Americans. Also surfacing is an ironic conflict between Japanese-Americans and German-Americans, a war beneath the war.
This dark story is layered at several points with poetic imagery, enough to convey the physical and spiritual sense of a world silently blanketed by snow. Ishmael's description of Hatsue, after a frolic on the beach, with a "residue of salt on her lips" fills in welcome details.
Humor rises up occasionally, too, especially in a disarming scene of newlyweds in the prison camp sharing their first night in the same room with the young wife's parents.
In the end, though, the play doesn't deliver quite enough impact. Even the outcome of the trial lacks cathartic weight, although the power of a simple hug afterward registers in a surprisingly strong way.
Director David Schweizer puts the cast through its paces in mostly well-timed fashion (some flubs on opening night caused minor distraction). Allen Moyer's smoothly rotating, minimal set, moodily lit by Christopher Akerlind, eases the flow.
Kenneth Lee conveys the proud, defiant nature of Kabuo, but without revealing much of what's behind that mask. Kristin Griffith is chilling as the cruel, condescending Etta Heine and telling as the sympathetic Mrs. Chambers. Michael McKenzie does accomplished work as Carl Heine Sr. and Kabuo's lawyer.
Laura Kai Chen is a little stiff as Hatsue, but has her moments. Anjanette Hall stands out in her brief courtroom scene as Carl Jr.'s wife. There are generally effective contributions from the remainder, especially Danny Gavigan (Carl Jr.), Timothy Sekk (Ishmael), Owen Scott (Abel), and, in a variety of roles, Glenn Kubota and Ching Valdes-Aran.
If you go
"Snow Falling on Cedars" runs through April 3 at Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St. $10-$55. 410-332-0033, centerstage.org.