|Mi Kang at Nao in A Tale for the Time Being (John Ulman)|
A Tale for the Time Being
Book-It Repertory Theatre
Through October 9, 2016
Book-It’s new production, A Tale for the Time Being, adapted from the Ruth Ozeki novel by Laura Ferri, is a heart-breaking and mesmerizing story. Book-It hired Desdemona Chiang to direct it, which was a great move, because she helps create a fluid and graceful rhythm to the production.
The tale has many flavors, including dark ones, but is all told first-person by Nao (Mi Kang), a sixteen year old in Japan, through her diary that has floated, carefully wrapped in plastic and a Hello Kitty lunchbox from Japan to the coast of Canada. A writer, Ruth (Mariko Kita) finds the package floating near her island home and becomes obsessed with the contents of the lunchbox.
Her husband, Oliver (a warmly geeky Michael Patten), contextualizes the lunchbox’s potential travel from the tsunami-wrecked Japan to Canada, and adds key moments of bird lore about various crow species that wind through the tale. Ruth reads passages of diary to Oliver as they try to unwind the mystery of Nao’s life.
Kang is enchanting as the young woman whose adventures we follow and dominates as the key character. Some of those adventures are harrowing. Nao speaks of both her father and herself as feeling periodically suicidal. Apparently in Japanese culture, suicide is looked at as far less awful than in the U.S. Not that it has no consequences to those left behind, but just less dire and forbidden.
Kita gracefully manages the writer-narrator who gets invested in the story and distracted from her own writing. Ruth is avoiding finishing a memoir about her mother’s decline from Alzheimer’s. So, Ruth’s story, too, is a bit dark.
But the overall effect of the evening is not as dreary. It’s life. It’s real. The character of Nao is interesting because she lived for a time with her family in California until they were forced by job loss back to Japan. So, Nao can reflect on the differences in cultures.
Nao also gets bullied terribly in school and does not feel connected to anyone but her mother and father, barely, until she’s sent for the summer to her great-grandmother, Jiko (Yoda-light-like Khanh Doan), a nun. There Nao learns to become her own “supah-hero” in enchanting fashion, and has the means to survive the terrors that life has to offer, sometimes.
The rest of the cast also does a great job becoming multiple characters, including the taunting school children. Scott Koh walks a delicate line as the suicidal father and does not drag the audience down. Annie Yim changes from harried mother to French maid-harlot recruiter Babette and seems like two different people. Rachel Rene has a fun role as the supportive nun. Kevin Lin has a challenging role as an uncle who was forced to become a Japanese kamikaze pilot during World War II even though he could not kill others.
This is a wonderful, woman-centered story with cultural depth and insights. Think of it like looking at a tapestry, with much to see and experience, as the characters say, “for the time being.”