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STAGE REVIEW : Internment Saga Opts for Gentle Irony

November 17, 1987|SYLVIE DRAKE | Times Theater Writer

"Tachinoki" means evacuation in Japanese--a term polite to the point of euphemism for what was done to American citizens of Japanese descent during World War II.

In many ways, the play of the same name that opened over the weekend at the Ensemble Studio Theatre (and is an offshoot of that group's Western Avenue Festival workshop earlier this year), deals just as politely with that highly explosive issue.

As written by Robert Schenkkan and directed by Heidi Helen Davis (herself the daughter of a Nisei, or second generation Japanese-American who was interned at Hunt, Ida.), this is the lively and very personal schoolgirl story of Sumi Seo, who was "evacuated" with her parents from their San Pedro farm at the southern end of Western Avenue.

Although its protagonists were all interned (first at the Santa Anita Race Track, subsequently at Camp Jerome, Ark.), the story takes on the hue of a bittersweet yet tender memory piece, downplaying the outrage of the blatantly unconstitutional treatment in favor of a gentler irony.

It is not that Seo (who worked closely with Schenkkan and Davis) is unaware of the injury inflicted on her family and the Japanese-American community, but that she chooses here to be conciliatory rather than bitter.

Being a relatively young child when all this happened has something to do with the benignity of the view. (Diana Tanaka plays Sumi Seo's part with lovely simplicity and a winning ingenuousness.) Seo clearly benefited from the inner strength and security provided by a closely knit family. It's what she emphasizes. The tragedy in real terms becomes chiefly an adventure seen through the eyes of a bright, engaging and fundamentally happy child.

All to the good in real life, but in theater? Tame, especially given the charged political context. Director Davis injects some satirical touches--a fashion show at Jerome, demonstrating the virtues of navy peacoats; the hollowness of reciting the pledge of allegiance in an internment camp classroom; the stunning absurdity of asking imprisoned children what the Constitution means to them--but the stabs are relatively minor.

We are otherwise charmed (lulled?) by Seo's youthful enthusiasms, her affection for her hard-working Papa (Jim Ishida), her competitiveness with her spoiled sister (Kate Randolph Burns), her closeness to her splendid Mama (a particularly rich portrait by Amy Hill). We watch her take her first steps towards independence on a work-release pass as the horror of Hiroshima casts its long shadow over the world.

We see it. We don't always feel it. The format of the piece--a highly subjective kind of docudrama--is difficult to negotiate. There is validity to the story, the humor, the personal angles, the reassurance that kids are kids even in camp, but it keeps running head-on into historical reference, the need to insist that this is not just a memory piece but a political one.

Wisely, Davis has kept the staging abstract; she has used--not abused--some slide projections (Michael Ross), minimal lights (J. Kent Inasy) and sets (David Kaplan) and, above all, responsive actors able to take on multiple roles. To those already mentioned add Charles Allen-Anderson and Darrell Kunitomi in a gallery of effective characters. But in the end, "Tachinoki" remains a mild rather than a mordant docudrama about Japanese wartime internment, undermined by the fondness of its backward glance, unable to escape its own benevolence, the limitations of the form or its thematic paradox.

Performances at 1089 N. Oxford Ave. resume Nov. 25, running in repertory with "Razkazy" (opening Thursday and playing Wednesdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m., until Jan. 15. Tickets: $12-$15 (seniors and students: $8-$10); (213) 466-2916.

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