Skillful staging tells sad story

Dale Li, Arlene Rapal and Ben Cowhick are in the cast of “Snow Falling on Cedars” at the Vintage Theatre.
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In many instances, we complain about the transition of a well-loved book to film and stage, but Kevin McKeon’s adaptation of the best-selling “Snow Falling on Cedars” by David Guterson works quite well — due in large part to a skillful director, Sam Wood.

The complicated story starts in 1954 with Kabuo Miyamoto (Dale Li) on trial for the murder of Carl Hein, who had been a childhood friend.

The script then proceeds to tell the backstory through numerous flashbacks: to a teenage love affair between Ishmael Chambers (Ben Cowhick) and Hatsue Mitamoto (Arlene Rapal); to the Japanese-American farmers who raised strawberries and wanted to buy more land; to the announcement of the Pearl Harbor bombing; the growing prejudice against — and eventual arrest and internment of — Japanese-American citizens who were residents of the island in Puget Sound where the story takes place.

Maria Cheng as Fujiko Imada and Rob Payo as Hisao Imada reflect another sort of prejudice in warning their daughter, Hatsue, against dating a white boy because “you couldn’t trust them.”

The set is a simple suggestion of a waterfront with minimal set pieces from which the audience is transported to the Manzanar Relocation Camp in Central California — and elsewhere. (It was one of 10 in the U.S., including Amache in southeastern Colorado, where 110 Japanese-Americans were incarcerated during World War II.)

There is a battle scene where Ishmael is wounded and a series of flashbacks interspersed with courtroom arguments and witness-questioning by Nels Gudmundsson (veteran actor Roger Simon, who actually is a lawyer), defending Miyamoto, and prosecutor Alvin Hooks (David Cervera).

Lighting technician Jen Orf had ongoing responsibility in staging this play. The lighting in the small, long and narrow studio theater highlighted numerous flashbacks clearly, moving the complex story along to its conclusion.

Director Sam Wood and a polished cast had their timing precise as we transitioned back and forth through the years.

A strong cast and well-written script remind us of an unfortunate piece of history we may have forgotten. I hope some audience members will be moved to find the book at their library and enjoy Guterson’s fine writing after seeing “Snow Falling on Cedars.”

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