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Theatre in Review: The Far Country (Atlantic Theater Company)

Eric Yang, Amy Kim Waschke. Photo: Ahron R. Foster

When the powerful moments come in The Far Country, they are usually throwaways, offhand comments discreetly packed with dynamite that catch one by surprise. We are first introduced to Gee, who has come to China to purchase a son. Having falsely convinced US officials that he is native-born American -- it is 1909 and the Chinese Exclusion Act is in full sway -- Gee negotiates with Low, a farmer, for her son Moon Gyet. For $1,600, plus the cost of passage, Gee will take Moon Gyet, declare him to be his child, and employ him in his laundry business. Deductions from Moon Gyet's wages will pay the fee, which Gee will front. Low is infuriated by the proposition, which amounts to indentured servitude; furthermore, a widow with no other children, she is essentially being asked to terminate her family line. But she is mired in terrible poverty and Moon Gyet is desperate to leave, so, at last, a deal is struck. Low charges Moon Gyet, who faces a future of struggle, to "do so with dignity and grace." "Yes, mother," he replies. "I am not your mother anymore," she says, sadly, severing their connection in a single terrible sentence.

Coming to the US, Moon Gyet must endure seventeen months in government custody, where he is grilled with ludicrously detailed questions about his fictional past. (Did his house have steps at the front entrance? How many steps?) The process is relentless and droning, designed to trap the young man in a lie, until he is asked, "What do you intend to do, should you be granted passage into San Francisco?" "I will weep," he responds, and, suddenly, everyone, including Moon Gyet, is brought up short by the raw honesty of his answer.

Ten years later, Moon Gyet returns to Taishan for a fraught homecoming. The mother -- son conversation has an undertone of fencing -- Low asks, "So you and Gee are able to live well?" "We are able to live," Moon Gyet replies cagily -- until he reveals that he is in the market for a woman he can pass off as his wife. Appalled at the thought of history repeating itself, Low brands her son as "desperate" and "dishonest," charges he rejects. When she adds, "Nameless," he has nothing to say; having surrendered his identity for a chance at prosperity, he has been nailed and he knows it.

Playwright Lloyd Suh packs his script with enough of these exchanges to keep us engaged; line by line, The Far Country is an exceptionally beautiful piece of writing. But the play is compromised by awkward theatrical devices and a tendency to lecture the audience. For example, When Gee and Gyet are interrogated by immigration officials, questions are posed to them in English then repeated by translators also speaking in English, which here stands in for Cantonese. The business of actors constantly speaking over each other quickly becomes irritating, robbing the lines of their meaning. Gee's inquiry also includes two actors, embodying Chinese immigrants, speaking directly to the audience, detailing the horrors of lengthy detention up to and including incidents of suicide. But their rapid-fire delivery, combined with the crosstalk mentioned above, is so alienating that one fights not to tune out the entire scene. There is far more telling than showing in The Far Country, a strategy that undermines the author's intentions.

The play also suffers from a strange tag-team construction that prevents any single character from attaining the status of protagonist. The first third is dominated by Gee's efforts to establish citizenship, followed by his dealings with Low. The middle portion shifts to Moon Gyet's detention, his chilly reunion with Low, and his marital negotiation with the vibrant young Yuen. The latter two scenes are among the play's best, thanks to Amy Kim Waschke's mordant work as Low, who has made a devil's bargain and lives to regret it, and Shannon Tyo as Yuen, who is the opposite of the submissive Asian woman of the Western imagination. Dispensing with her father, whom she dismisses as an incompetent drunk, Yuen negotiates her own arrangement with Moon Gyet, upsetting him with her direct questions about what exactly will be expected of her in the laundry and bedroom. After this, Moon Gyet drops out as the action jumps ahead another decade, showing Yuen, a prosperous matron, tending to the ailing Gee. The play ends with a lovely aria by Yuen, detailing how this long chain of events -- informed by self-abnegation, hard work, and sheer endurance -- have contributed to the long game of building a solid foundation on which future generations can succeed. But even writing this lyrical doesn't fully make up for the many narrative elisions and structural weaknesses that leave one ultimately dissatisfied.

Adding to the play's slightly disembodied feeling is a scenic design by Clint Ramos that is, on its own terms, gorgeously wrought. Key elements include a clear deck, a mirrored upstage wall that later discloses several elegantly arranged visual surprises, and some unexpected special effects, none of which are to be revealed here. (Jiyoun Chang's lighting combines muscular, highly directional looks with subtle, delicately rendered scenic reveals.) It's an impressive achievement, but does a tale of sweat, toil, incarceration, and squalor really want this sleek, immaculate art exhibit? It's a question worth pondering. Junghyun Georgia Lee's costumes are solid, but Fan Zhang's original music and sound design is sometimes needlessly sentimental and stentorian.

All of this suggests that, rather than strengthening and clarifying Suh's sometimes problematic script, director Eric Ting has further muddied the waters. Still, in addition to Waschke and Tyo -- the latter of whom is starting to look more and more like a major talent -- Ting also obtains fine performances from Jinn S. Kim as Gee and Eric Yang as Moon Gyet. And, in its best moments, The Far Country rewrites our standard triumphant immigration saga, adding many notes of moral ambiguity and sadness while respecting the hard-won (and often hard-bitten) achievements of past generations.

This is Suh's second pass (at least) at dealing with the Chinese Exclusion Act. (The first is The Chinese Lady, a somewhat inert piece, seen in 2018 and 2022, that, both times, featured an authoritative performance by Tyo.) It was an unjust law that resonates discomfortingly in today's America, and all praise to the playwright for bringing it forward. But if Suh could find a strongly dramatic matrix to further illuminate this dark chapter of our history, his arguments might pack a true knockout punch. In The Far Country, they land, but sometimes too glancingly. --David Barbour


(12 December 2022)

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