Snow Falling on Cedars
Sly treatment turns boilerplate courtroom drama into something with a bit more presence
Published: March 23, 2011
Snow Falling on Cedars
Adapted by Kevin McKeon from David Guterson’s novel
Through April 3 at Center Stage
Credit where it’s due: Kevin McKeon’s adaptation of David Guterson’s 1994 bestseller Snow Falling on Cedars has no right to be as solid as it is. Guterson’s novel, the 1995 PEN/Faulkner Award winner, is a broadly milquetoast installment of American literary fiction, passing off purple prose as lyricism, wrapping a courtroom procedural inside a historical melodrama, and congratulating readers for reacting appropriately to ordinary American prejudices while stalling the inevitable, convenient feel-good ending. It’s all-American conventions served up modestly unconventionally, and seeing all those Norman Rockwellesque/Perry Masonish tropes visualized onscreen is what made Scott Hicks’ 1999 movie adaptation the dud that it was. Sure, Robert Richardson’s exquisite cinematography was nominated for an Oscar, but remember: 1999 was an Oscar year dominated by such fish/barrel old-fashioned Americana as American Beauty, The Green Mile, and The Cider House Rules.
All of which lowers the expectations for McKeon’s adaptation and director David Schweizer’s Center Stage production. Thanks to McKeon’s imaginative narrative compression and structuring and Schweizer’s and scenic designer Allen Moyer’s set decisions, though, this Snow swirls into a disarmingly entertaining two hours and change. The story remains the same: In a small fishing town on the fictional Puget Sound island San Piedro in the winter of 1952, fisherman Kabuo Miyamoto (Kenneth Lee) stands trial for the murder of his former childhood friend and fellow fisherman, Carl Heine Jr. (Danny Gavigan), who was found dead among his nets with a curious head wound. Sheriff Art Moran (Neal Hemphill), his deputy Abel Martinson (Owen Scott), and the prosecutor Alvin Hooks (Bernard Burak Sheredy) collect what they feel is convincing evidence that Kabuo is guilty: a bloody fishing gaff, the fact that one of Kabuo’s batteries powers Carl’s motor, and that they were both seen in the same area that evening, and, not least of it, a motive. Kabuo’s father entered into an agreement to purchase strawberry-farming land from Carl’s father, a purchase interrupted by Executive Order 9066, which sent all of San Piedro’s Japanese inhabitants to the Manzanar internment camp in California. When Carl’s father passed and Kabuo’s father wasn’t able to maintain his payments, Carl’s mother sold the land to a non-Japanese buyer.
That’s not the only unambiguously bigoted thread running through Snow. Before the war, the young Ishmael Chambers (Timothy Sekk) develops a crush on the young Hatsue Miyamoto (Laura Kai Chen), who likes him right back. They hide their relationship, preferring the comfortable solitude of the woods, but the real world invades after Dec. 7, 1941. Soon, Americans, even those in the close-knit San Piedro community, are suspicious of the Japanese people who have lived among them for years. Soon, Hatsue, Kabuo, and their families are being ordered away. Soon, both Ishmael and Kabuo are enlisting to defend their country—Kabuo in the European theater, Ishmael in the Pacific. Soon, Hatsue’s mother (Ching Valdes-Aran) learns of her daughter’s relationship with Ishmael and tells her IT can never happen. Soon, Hatsue writes Ishmael a letter saying they can never be together and starts seeing Kabuo. Soon, Ishmael is having his arm amputated after a firefight with the “fucking Japs.”
The play, as in the movie and the novel, flashes back from Kabuo’s trial to more bucolic days on San Piedro, the urgency and paranoia following Pearl Harbor, and the ordinary tensions between people after the fighting’s over but the war year fears linger. McKeon, however, streamlines the storytelling by having the characters deliver both dialogue lines and narrative exposition. Characters introduce scenes, describe the setting, set up conversations, offer descriptive details. It’s an expository technique at first, as actor Michael McKenzie, playing Kabuo’s defense attorney Nels Gundmundsson, sets up a scene and seamlessly moves into a conversation with his client. It’s almost as if italicized stage directions in a script are being read to you by the performers onstage, and it gives the play’s opening moments the odd tenor of a dress read-through.
The decision has a surreptitiously thematic potency, though, and it’s reinforced by the stage design. For this story of a murder trial on an island community, director Schweizer and scenic designer Moyer set the action entirely on a single raked wooden platform that rotates. Sparsely decorated with a pile of chairs, a table, and a single armoire, this rectangular area becomes the courtroom, a fishing ship’s deck, a lighthouse, a strawberry farm, various homes, the Spartan confines of the internment camp, the hell-raising chaos of the battlefield. Some actors play multiple characters, and they retrieve whatever costume/props needed from the armoire or a pair of doors in the floor. Occasionally the stage rotates, a visual clue of the world changing around the island while the characters try to hold on to how they feel.
And these modest tweaks to how this mawkish story unfolds give it a subtle, and sometimes even tragic, intelligence. Schweizer’s approach turns this community into a ordinary American population as isolated and trapped by its past as it is by its geography: Who they are and how they got there is as present in that courtroom—which wisely puts the audience in the judge/jury seat—as witnesses and lawyers, and the years spent since speak as persuasively as the present. It’s why the characters provide exposition: It’s as if we’re catching them in the act of figuring the story out themselves. And it’s enough to coat Snow’s Hollywood ending in a powdery patina of bittersweet complexity.
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