Ashanti Brown, left, and Will McFadden in "Year of the Rabbit"… (Betsy Newman )
War is hell on mothers. That’s the impassioned intel from “Year of the Rabbit,” Keliher Walsh’s wrenching, lyrical roundelay of nurture and destruction, being given its world premiere by Ensemble Studio Theatre Los Angeles at the Atwater Village Theatre.
On Hana S. Kim’s minimalist set, a thicket of bamboo poles slash the stage, evoking the jungles of Vietnam, the Persian Gulf and Washington, D.C., flashpoints of America’s anxious imperialism. In the late 1960s, JC (Meshach Taylor), having barely survived the jungles of East Asia, marries the troubled Vietnamese refugee (Elyse Dinh) who carries their child. Decades later, their daughter (Ashanti Brown) faces her own crucible in the Middle East, caught between lethal military duties and feelings for a fellow Air Force lieutenant (Will McFadden).
Walsh (who also performs in the show) reveals these tangled relationships with skill, comparing the terror of maternal love to a war zone: “It’s dangerous becoming a mother,” her character confesses. “The landscape changes. The transformation happens without any … mercy.”
Although certain plot mechanisms can feel predictable (drone strikes, PTSD), the assured direction by James Eckhouse immerses you in an intense atmosphere of impossible choices, heightened by Pablo Santiago’s chiaroscuro lighting and Joseph “Sloe” Slawinski’s brooding sound design. The show achieves moments of hypnotic power, even when its heart is a little too visible on its sleeve. The cast moves fluidly between worlds; Taylor and Brown excel as father and daughter veterans, struggling to live with ghosts.
“Rabbit’s" big ambitions are admirable. But its best moments are small and ornery, when people’s sheer stubbornness binds them to life. “It’s what we do,” a husband (Peter Mackenzie) tells his grieving wife: “We go on.”
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“Year of the Rabbit,” Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., Atwater Village. Check schedule for exact showtimes. Ends Oct. 28. $25. (323) 644-1929 or www.ensemblestudiotheatrela.org. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.
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