In the right hands it can be — full of poetry and beauty, infused with sadness, resolve, pain and perseverance.
David Guterson's 1994 novel "Snow Falling on Cedars" is a work of such beauty. Set on a small island in Washington's Puget Sound inhabited by "5,000 damp souls," it's the story of a murder trial that exposes the racial tension dividing the islanders.
A Japanese-American man has been accused of murdering a white fisherman. It's a simple enough story, but this is 1954, and the complexities stretch back to that dreadful day in early 1942 when Japanese Americans were forced to leave their homes and enter internment camps.
Racism and all those other distinctly human -isms are have been around in one fearful form or another for eons. But when the government sanctions racism, as the U.S. government did during World War II, the repercussions are profound and lasting.
That's what "Snow Falling on Cedars" is really about. The plot is propelled by the murder-mystery aspect of the trial, but the story's heft comes from characters dealing with hatreds large and small, and a dangerous level of fear exacerbated by wartime paranoia.
Guterson's novel was turned into a decent movie in 1999. If the plot was given more to melodrama than depth, at least the cinematography captured the breathtaking beauty of the Pacific Northwest.
Almost a decade later, "Snow Falling on Cedars" made its way to the stage of Seattle's Book-It Repertory Company courtesy of adaptor Kevin McKeon. The hit show is now making its way through theaters around the country. The Bay Area premiere landed exactly where it should: TheatreWorks.
When one watches "Snow" on stage, with its forthright morality blending with hyper-theatricality, it seems there's no other local theater that would do this play as well.
Director Robert Kelley knows just how to combine elements of realism (especially in his actors' performances) and impressionism (notably in the silhouettes and wooden planks of Andrea Bechert's set) to engage audience members' imaginations and make them participants, not just observers.
That's important as we attempt to figure out just what happened between Kabuo Miyamoto (Tim Chiou) and Carl Heine (Will Springhorn Jr.) on their fishing boats one foggy September night. Carl ended up dead, and Kabuo, clearly lying about the events of that night, ended up in jail.
More than once we hear that Kabuo's arrest wasn't for murder. It was for being of Japanese descent. As we discover more and more about life on the island, especially in the years after the war, we understand that's shamefully true.
The trial provides a formal structure to this two-and-a-half-hour drama, but as characters testify, they break away from the witness stand to inhabit the scene they're describing.
Running parallel to Kabuo's trial is a love story involving newspaperman Ishmael Chambers (Willy Collyer) and Hatsue Imada (Maya Erskine), who grew up together picking strawberries in local fields. They fell in love as teenagers, but theirs was a forbidden love because of their different cultural backgrounds.
Then life forced them apart. Ishmael suffered a terrible injury in the war, and after living for nearly three years in the Manzanar relocation camp, Hatsue chose a path that took her away from her first love.
Their shared past haunts them, especially Ishmael, whose depression and bitterness force him into a vitally important choice that would satisfy his need for revenge or take him to the moral high ground.
The 12-member cast essays more than 30 roles, and it's a credit to Kelley's sure-handed direction that they're all so distinct. Anne Darragh has the intriguing opportunity to play both ends of the racism spectrum. As Etta Heine, the mother of the murdered man, she has nothing but contempt for her Japanese neighbors, and she makes some venomous decisions as a result. Later in the play, Darragh then plays Mrs. Chambers, who provides a moral compass for her son, Ishmael, when she sees his objectivity being compromised by racism.
Edward Sarafian is the stalwart defense attorney Nels Gudmundsson, and his final plea to the jury to behave like open-hearted humans provides one of the evening's most heartfelt moments (and calls to mind a similar plea from Atticus Finch).
McKeon's play is far more sensitive than the movie but still lacks the depth and shading of the book — how could it not? A 450-page book condensed to two and a half hours is a tall order. There's a richness to the story here that was lacking in the movie, though without the book's spare poetry, the whiff of melodrama is never too far away.
But what could have been a pulpy, preachy history lesson becomes, in the hands of Guterson and McKeon, an emotionally involving reminder that even in our so-called civilized society, our worst is never too far away.
TheatreWorks' "Snow Falling on Cedars" by David Guterson, adapted by Kevin McKeon at Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St. Running through April 24 with shows at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday; 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday; 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; and 7 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $24-$67 with student, senior and educator discounts. Go to www.theatreworks.org or call 650-463-1960.