The Off-Broadway Theatre Review: Atlantic Theater Company’s The Far Country
Imagine. 1909. Angel Island, San Francisco. It’s a time and a world I knew little about, but thanks to the thoughtful emotional writing of Lloyd Suh (The Chinese Lady) and his meticulously crafted new play, The Far Country, some light has been shone on the desperate tale of the immigrant, at least from the vantage point of those arriving from Taishan, China. The play is intense and interesting, floating on an intricate island of ideas. It all begins at an interrogation desk, with an open-faced Gee, played wisely by Jinn S. Kim (Public’s The Fairy Tale Project), attempting to gain citizenship to America by being as carefully engaging as possible. He states that he was born in San Francisco, and wants it to become official. But it’s not so straightforward. Due to the devastating 1906 earthquake and the subsequent loss and destruction of numerous government records that could support his claim, the road forward is a bit more difficult, even with the ratification of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The extended scene of questioning rattles forward, showcasing the complications with officials and interpreters shifting the dynamic around and about the man as he tries with what appears to be full sincerity to stay in the country where he was born and that he loves. It’s a framework we have grown used to inside plays about immigration, with our loyalties floating and flying toward the one who would like to stay, and ultimately grow. But the complexity of this island stands strong.
Citizenship would give the man a name, one that has value and position, but we aren’t aware of the full extent of this until later when he returns to his hometown in Taishan to negotiate with a farmer woman named Low, played most powerfully by Amy Kim Waschke (Geffen’s Revenge Song). He has singled her out, strictly to offer her son, Moon Gyet, played well and true by Eric Yang (New Federal’s Gong Lum’s Legacy), a chance, for a price, to create a new life in America. Her son would have to basically become his son, which would grant him the possible right to live in America and give him a role in Gee’s San Francisco laundry business. But only if he can convince the authorities that he is, in fact, his son. It’s a huge financial burden on the mother, but one Gee promises will be worth it in the long run. Once all the debts have been paid off. And only if he is successful.
The citizenship Gee has gained has given him a name that he can use, and sell, and one that Moon Gyet believes he wants, maybe not for himself, or even his mother, but for the generations that will follow along behind him in America. This is where the intensity of The Far Country resides, in the handing down of a name, whether it is yours or not, and on that playing field, it doesn’t disappoint, although as a dynamic piece of theatre, it moves through its paces at a centered and slow rate. It’s clear but not internally compelling most of the time, remaining honest and fascinating but somehow slow and distant. And as directed by Eric Ting (Yale Rep/OSF’s Between Two Knees), the play registers with intent, feeling generationally large and in-depth, yet doesn’t completely absorb.
On a dock-like setting, courtesy of some beautiful abstract work by set designer Clint Ramos (Broadway’s KPOP), with straightforward yet strong costuming by Junghyun Georgia Lee (Public/Ma-Yi’s Teenage Dick), detailed lighting by Jiyoun Chang (Broadway’s for colored girls…), and a solid sound design by Fan Zhand (LCT’s At the Wedding), the metaphorical cost of disconnecting family bonds floats strong on the slow current of the piece. The offer is seized upon by Moon Gyet, without hesitation, but his journey forward isn’t smooth or straightforward. He gets stuck on the infamous Angel Island, held in a crumbling tense limbo while authorities continually question and deny him entry. It’s a tense bit of dialogue, heavy with intent mixed in with attempts for poetic etchings throughout. The scenes are drawn out, long-winded, and repetitive, on purpose, selling the point completely, while not exactly making for the most captivating of interactions. We feel strongly for the man, surrounded by water and separated from both past family bonds and his possible future in America. But worn out by the roundabout reactions.
Facts get laid out, leading us up the counted steps into a space to explore and learn from. The smoothness of the symbolic obliging fool is a good one by Kim’s Gee, as well as the second unfolding, when Moon Gyet returns, to see his mother, and to find himself a wife, in the same needy format that was once him. Yang, as Moon Gyet, delivers the piece forward subtly and with great soul, as does the vibrant Shannon Tyo (Ma-Yi/Public’s The Chinese Lady) as Moon Gyet’s soon-to-be enlisted wife, Yuen. Their engagement registers as truthful as the lie they are presenting and deepens the play’s drama most dynamically. So even as The Far Country sometimes gets weighed down by a lectured tone in the framework, the play delivers the gamble forward with grace. It leaves you engaged and curious, even if not completely engrossed from beginning to end. Buying and selling one’s name is a tense fraught dilemma, but a conversation and a drama that is needed to be delivered forth. And The Far Country finds its way to stay afloat, even with all that weight.
[…] Chang, The Far Country, Atlantic Theater […]
[…] with an expert force by Lloyd Suh (The Far Country), The Chinese Lady, now playing at Crow’s Theatre in Toronto by Studio 180 Theatre and fu-GEN […]