There are lead actors, and there are actors as leaders. If you want a leader, look to actor Sab Shimono.
Last year, in Philip Kan Gotanda's "The Wash" at the Mark Taper Forum, Shimono almost single-handedly raised a rather plain and flaccid domestic drama into a man's personal apotheosis.
Now, with Japanese-Canadian playwright R.A. Shiomi's "Uncle Tadao," at East West Players, it's \o7 deja vu\f7 all over again.
Gotanda is involved once more, this time as director. The play at hand is even more domestic than "The Wash," but also more emotionally cathartic. Shimono nearly wills "Uncle Tadao" to life when it appears to have been lost for good.
Any actor will tell you that he loves a character that "has a journey"--particularly when the play around it isn't working: There's still the journey to take. George, a father of two, a Toronto die-cutter and a survivor of the Japanese-Canadian internment camps, presents a longer odyssey for Shimono than the crusty old fart he played in "The Wash." What the characters have in common--and Shimono masterfully achieves--is a pent-up emotional life that tears their insides out.
George doesn't want to hear about daughter June's passion for reparations for camp survivors (she's played by the too-contained Chi-en Telemaque), but it's not clear why, since his concern that such rabble-rousing would disturb his elderly mother (Saachiko) doesn't ring true. George knows his job as father of the house, but he never puts his heart into it.
In this way, among others, son Ronald (Shaun Shimoda, who makes the most of his big moments) has followed in George's footsteps all too well. His later revelation that he feels cut off from the family is only one of Shiomi's several failed effects, since we've seen it from the beginning.
Just as we see that June is an obvious catalyst: the messenger who carries the issue (justice for camp survivors) and will set fire to the theme (emotional guilt, held inside too long, will kill). Gotanda also played dramaturg on this project, but neither he nor Shiomi have found a way to avoid telegraphing the dramatic core of "Uncle Tadao" long before it's played out on stage.
Other problems are smaller. Saachiko provides a plot device and some wan comic relief, but spends too much time shuffling off-stage (she's also too young by decades). George's dutiful wife Mary, played by the steady Dian Kobayashi, has nothing to do but contribute good advice until her sudden act of will late in the drama. Gotanda and lighting designer J. Richard Tyson indulge once too often in the cliche of dimming lights so George can see his dead brother Tadao through a shaft of spotlight.
This is a show that needs an even bigger boost than Shimono can provide, but that doesn't lessen your admiration for his determination. Shimono allows George's psychic breakdown to slowly bubble, so that even George doesn't realize what's coming over him. "Uncle Tadao" evolves into a real ghost story, but Shimono ensures that the most powerful effects are his.
It's unashamed psychodrama, and advocates of more fanciful, inventive theater aren't likely to be too friendly toward "Uncle Tadao." With the intrusion of a patriotic white neighbor (Tom Donaldson, an actor with brittle humor), the play suggests a larger social canvas that Shiomi seems to enjoy exploring. Playwrights have their own journeys to take too.
\o7 "Uncle Tadao," East West Players, 4424 Santa Monica Blvd., Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends Feb. 23. $16-$18; (213) 660-8587. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.