"The Sisters Matsumoto" at the Huntington Theatre Company is interesting, delicate, and occasionally of astonishing beauty, both as a play and as a production. However, it is also a work that fits awkwardly into its chosen theatrical form, the naturalistic domestic drama where the family crisis is focused on a particular social issue of historical importance: in this case the internment of Americans of Japanese ancestry during W.W.II. Now, I am not complaining about any of the elements of Philip Kan Gotanda's play-- all of them are play worthy. Nor am I opposed in principle to the dramatic form the author has used, or convinced that it depends upon fresh information to hold an audience's attention: "All My Sons" at Lyric West was absolutely riveting, and repeated viewings in no way diminished its power. But "Sisters" is dotted with indigestible lumps of exposition; scenes in which one character tells another information that should already be known to both; and worse, the information seems to make no difference in the characters' subsequent relationship. The one bit of life changing shock, the uncovering of an action taken by the family patriarch before his death which affects everyone's future but which he never revealed to his dependent family, comes in the last minutes before the end of the first act and then fizzles out, unaddressed, in act two. The old fashioned "secret-that-changes-everything" is far from my favorite play structure -- I don't mind that Gotanda has declined to follow it. But I do mind that he seems not to have discovered a new structure to take its place.
The three Matsumoto sisters return from the internment camp in Arkansas to their family farm near Stockton, California. Both parents are dead. The father remains a major presence through the effect his personality and drive and his initial American business success has on the next generation. The mother seems to have passed away leaving scarcely a trance behind. Grace, (Kim Miyori) the dutiful eldest daughter, is married to Hideo (Nelson Mashita), a conservative ex college professor with pro-Japanese leanings. Grace considers herself the head of the family, and no one really challenges her on this. Chiz (Christine Toy Johnson), the middle sister and the most Americanized of them, is married to a doctor from Hawaii . Bola (Stan Egi) is an "alternative" doctor, a buddhist using traditional cures; whether he is also licensed to practice Western medicine is unclear. Bola is loud, colorful young man fond of jokes and fun-- not the sort of personality usually associated with hardworking immigrants who manage to earn a medical degree. The unmarried sister, Rose (Sala Iwamatsu), is in mourning for her betrothed, who volunteered for the suicide squad manned by Japanese Americans motivated to prove their intense loyalty to their adopted country by fighting in the front lines against their country of origin. All these characters are preparing to build new lives to replace those forcibly disrupted by the internment and the confiscation or forced sale of their property, beginning by reviving the homestead farm as a going agricultural concern. An old friend from the past, the girls' playmate whom they dubbed "the ringworm boy" from his bout with that embarrassing disease, shows up to court Rose, and in Ryun Yu's portrayal, sturdy optimistic young Henry proves a blend of of the most attractive features of both traditions. The final character, played by Will Marchetti, is a double crossing American friend of the late Mr. Matsumoto and his family, and his scenes are the most awkward of all. It's hard to see how the honorable Matsumotos can live on the same earth with such a despicable weak person, let alone grant him the forgiveness he hopes to negotiate.
Kate Edmunds' set for the Huntington is gorgeous, a semi-abstract sketch of an idealized homestead glowing with Nancy Schertler's light and metaphoric warmth and hope-- and it is obviously at odds with the description in the text of the bleak and battered reality that makes the sisters' homecoming so painful. The Costume Design by Lydia Tanji seems perfect, filling in both the postwar period, the sisters' initial prosperity, and characters' individual taste with a sure eye. The Original Music by Dan Kuramoto seems perfect, too, but coexists rather uneasily with the American swing that is part of Jeff Mockus' Sound Design. The acting generally is fine, the movement patterns garaceful--- but Sharon Ott's direction, too, seems caught in a stylistic dilemma. Ott has characters marching past their scene partners to down stage center to deliver their long speeches of exposition, for all the world as if the actors were suddenly shifted into a turn of the century melodrama or drawing room comedy where a frankly theatrical form of line delivery that acknowledges the presence of the audience was the norm. I applaud this impulse to shake of the tedious fetters of naturalism, and I am sure that its practice here added greatly to the clarity of Gotonda's text-- which suffered many lost words when recited upstage or off to one side. But the practice certainly underlined the uncomfortable fit between form and content. I was far more engaged by Gotanda's characters in this play than by the near mythic figures who populate his "Ballad of Yuchio", which I saw at the New York Shakespeare Festival last year. However, I left that performance satisfied that I had seen a realized work of art, while I left the Huntington production speculating about what the author might do to "fix" it. As I made my way out of the theatre, I overhead a number of audience members remarking that "The Sisters Matsumoto" might be better as an epic novel or a film. Nobody seemed to be in any hurry to leave. The sisters and their lives were fuel for fascinating speculation, and the cruel interment policy whereby America singled out some of its citizens as potential traitors and imprisoned innocents for the crimes they might commit is one of those dramatic moments where our nation's ideas and practices conflict in the most illuminating way. I can see why the wish to see Gotanda's unfamiliar world in illustrative but unobtrusive detail might be better satisfied by a novel or film. But this is essentially the play's maiden voyage, an in-progress production which orginated in Berkeley and has been restaged here in Boston. I believe that with some fairly radical rethinking Gontanda's " Sisters Matsumoto" will make a magnificent play, and I just hope that the success of this partial realization doesn't prevent the author and his collaborators from creating that more perfect one.