History Lessened

 

Two months after Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, calling for the scooping up and hiding away of all “aliens and nonaliens perceived as a national military threat.” Though the order didn’t specify that “aliens and nonaliens” meant Japanese-Americans, General John DeWitt crassly clarified things in March 1942 when he said, “A Jap is a Jap,” and relocation camps were born.

This information comes from 12 pages of back story, dating to 1790, in the program for Missouri Repertory Theatre’s Sisters Matsumoto by Philip Kan Gotanda. It is 1935 and the three title characters and two of their husbands are returning to their home in Stockton, California, following their humiliating stint in a camp. While this part of American history certainly deserves a theatrical examination, it should be in a play better written, acted, and staged than this one. Sisters Matsumoto just doesn’t have the import that calls for 12 pages of back story dating to 1790.

The family in the fiction consists of Grace (Kim Miyori), the eldest, and her stoic husband, Hideo (Nelson Mashita); the flamboyant, assimilation-hungry Chiz (Christine Toy Johnson) and her husband, Bola (the hammy Stan Egi); and Rose, the youngest (Sala Iwamatsu), whose fiancé dies in the war. It would seem that all of the issues that arise when they’re back home — being ashamed of being Japanese, feeling caught in an arranged marriage, etc. — ought to have surfaced earlier in the camp’s closer quarters, but these and other conversations conveniently pop up throughout the play and then just as conveniently go away. The biggest conflict the family couldn’t have predicted takes up act two in a way that samples Shakespeare, Chekhov, and other better writers.

The nadir of the script comes when Chiz asks, “Did I ever tell you about the time I could hear the corn?” She proceeds to tell us at length, and the overwritten scene is just one of several drowning in forced similes. It doesn’t help that Johnson’s performance is singularly the phoniest in the show. Though Miyori carries the grace of her character’s name, and Will Marchetti is powerful in two brief scenes as the white man who betrays his Japanese friends, the cast doesn’t call up any more freshness than a pantry of canned vegetables.

Sharon Ott’s direction resembles that of a three-camera situation comedy, leaving the actors standing around waiting for the plot’s next footfall. The costumes and sets are fine, but Nancy Shertler’s lighting is bereft of anything moving or magical; it’s as literal as silly points of light being thrown against the backdrop when a character comments on the stars. They don’t glow or twinkle — they’re simply negative images of Dalmatian spots. And because the cast has done the show four times now, from Peter Altman’s Huntington Theatre in Boston to the Seattle Rep, what’s to be made of the four “casting consultants” credited in the program? It’s that kind of overkill that leaves Sisters Matsumoto in a kind of Lifetime Channel limbo.

Categories: A&E, Stage