John Olive’s new play, “The Summer Moon,” opens with a haiku recited in Japanese by narrator Naotake Fukushima (Greg Watanabe). Loosely translated, the poem says: “Stillness/penetrating stones/the locust voices.”
This riddle sets the tone for “The Summer Moon.” Like a haiku, the play is composed of discrete parts which, taken together, create a potent mood and lingering impression.
The action is set in the California desert in the late 1950s. In the first act, Naotake, the representative of a Japanese car manufacturer, teams up with a Japanese-American farmworker named Rosie (Tamlyn Tomita) to introduce a new truck to American consumers.
The second act takes a sharp turn when half-crazed WWII veteran Arnie (Robert Knepper) enters. Soon Naotake and his new comrade Arnie are off on a kind of Japanese-American vision quest, out in the desert, howling at the summer moon. The plot bumps along over passages like these. At one point, Rosie, who had been accompanying the two men, drops out of the picture, inexplicably.
But the play doesn’t seem to need a consistent storyline. It’s firmly held together by the central character, Naotake, whose transformation from a Japanese salary worker to a cross-cultural supersalesman engrosses the audience every step of the way.
This is due largely to the power of Watanabe’s performance, as shaped by director Les Waters. Watanabe shifts effortlessly between the awkward, formal Japanese businessman of 1958 and the expansive, self-possessed narrator he has become. As the fresh-off-the-boat businessman, he struggles with simple English (“I am very angry to you!”). As the narrator, he speaks in round, low tones.
Reciting haiku, he makes Japanese seem like the purest and most beautiful language in the world. You could listen to him all night long, not caring that you did not understand a single word.
Watanabe sets a high mark with his performance, which Tomita, as Rosie, can’t quite reach. When Knepper comes on with all pistons firing in the second act, it’s a relief; he’s a better foil for Watanabe’s energy.
At the play’s beginning, and again at the end, Naotake announces, “This is a ghost story” — a ghost being a man who wears another man’s skin. In this sense , both Naotake and Arnie become specters by the story’s end. They both draw masks over their flaws, their passions, their pasts.
The final scene, an upbeat reunion, seems a bit too hunky-dory to believe, but it’s a faint missed beat in this two-and-a-half-hour haiku.
“The Summer Moon” was produced with the assistance of the Kennedy Center Fund for New American Plays.