Great-grandparents may remember slavery, parents can recall the bombing of Pearl Harbor and kids graduating high school watched the World Trade Center crumble on live television. History is anything but dead and gone. The events in Snow Falling on Cedars, TheatreWorks’ latest production at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, surround the racial prejudice and tension of World War II—battles fought less than seven decades ago. However, for the characters, and possibly the audience, the passage of time means nothing next to the emotional connection to our collective history.

Based on the novel by David Guterson, Snow Falling on Cedars is a murder mystery set against the backdrop of two children who fall into a star-crossed love that would make Romeo feel pity. Hatsue Miyamoto (Maya Erskine) is a Japanese immigrant in Washington who works in the strawberry fields alongside an American boy, Ishmael Chambers (Will Collyer), when they find their friendship evolving into love. After Japan attacks Pearl Harbor, America enters the war and the two lovers are bitterly forced apart: Ishmael to fight and Hatsue placed in an internment camp. They are brought together years later, in 1954, when Hatsue’s husband is accused of murder.

Kevin McKeon’s ambitious stage adaptation mirrors the racism, cultural conflicts (within a single culture and between cultures) and the struggles to define oneself that the book covers in 450-plus pages. It’s a testament to McKeon’s work that such heavy content, both in subject matter and quantity, does not bog down the production. After a rocky start, where the characters stumble over each other to introduce themselves in the third-person, director Robert Kelley beautifully finds his pacing and steers the actors through the material with flawless transitions between scenes and settings—a change that’s often indicated with nothing more than a slight shift in staging or tone.

McKeon and Kelley would be dead in the water if they tried to pull off such an aggressive adaptation without anything but a stellar cast. You can’t help but smile at the youthful chemistry that Erskine and Collyer bring in the first act, and as Hatsue’s husband, Kabuo, Tim Chiou wonderfully embodies the silently boiling rage of a man who’s oppressed as much by his own pride as the prejudice from others. The supporting cast is strong, most notably Kabuo’s lawyer, Nels Gudmundsson (Edward Sarafian). Believable, genuine and powerful, every actor should strive for the natural flow and delivery in Sarafian’s performance.

A couple of choppy waves, such as actors delivering lines with backs turned to the audience so often that the tactic loses any intended emotional emphasis, keep this production from being entirely smooth sailing, but it’s a voyage no one should miss. Disconnected in the pages of a history book, our past is our present and the future; sitting next to us on the bus, across the dinner table or, here, onstage. At the curtain, one is reminded of the famous quote “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” leading to a question that Gudmundsson asks Kabuo’s jury, “Will you rise up against this endless tide and, in the face of it, be truly human?”

Snow Falling on Cedars
A TheatreWorks production
Runs through April 24
Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts

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