Chay Yew’s new drama, having its world premiere at the Kirk Douglas, is absorbing, thought-provoking entertainment. The first act, inspired by Federico Garcia Lorca’s 1933 “Blood Wedding,” is a superbly streamlined, romantic story of lovers in torment, while the second is a more sprawling, political tract that holds attention without attaining the emotional strength of the earlier half. Taken together, even with ragged moments, the blend of passion and politics adds up to compelling theater.
Haunting green lighting and palm fronds silhouetted against finely woven bamboo screens create an atmospheric 1920s Southeast Asian environment. Against this backdrop, Yew’s tale depicts the intertwined fate of two couples. Zul (Eric D. Steinberg), ambitious owner of a rubber plantation, is eager to marry his more liberated sweetheart Salmah (Tamlyn Tomita), despite her desire to escape a conventionally structured existence and her agonized cry: “I wish I could do things men are destined for. … I fight hard to break free from the purgatory of my sex.”
Positive he can eliminate this illicit lust through marriage, Zul tolerates Salmah’s affair with Alan (Daniel Blinkoff), a snobbish resident commissioner, and shares anxieties with Patricia (Maria Cina), the commissioner’s neglected wife.
Steinberg brings force and complexity to the role of Zul. When Zul discovers a world of possibilities through Salmah’s copy of D.H. Lawrence’s “Sons and Lovers,” he exemplifies millions of people who have the inner potential to move beyond their restricted lives. Tomita is excellent as a young Asian woman who struggles to conform, yet can’t fight dangerous desire for her married lover.
Robert Egan’s direction is a beautiful high-wire act, balancing seamlessly between episodes of heated passion and psychological reflection, and Blinkoff is remarkably effective in translating these moods. Coldly insensitive to his pregnant wife, he projects blazing sexuality in bedroom scenes with Tomita, and tension mounts as the wedding between Zul and Salmah approaches.
The first-act love story is so involving that Yew’s switch to a different tone, set of characters and time period 80 years later takes getting used to. The adjustment is never entirely made. If anything, Egan, Yew and company are too successful in enlisting audience sympathy, and the contempo protagonists seem puzzling and intrusive.
Luckily, Yew is a potent enough playwright to fill the stage with tantalizing situations. His substitute characters are distantly related to their ’20s counterparts. Alan Weiss (Blinkoff), a newspaper reporter, is the grandson of Patricia, now revealed as author of a 1928 article entitled “Unjust Native Labor Abuse by British Colonialists.”
This theme of western exploitation, tangentially touched upon in act one, becomes the overriding concern in the show’s second act. A conflict develops involving Weiss’ disapproval of Sulaiman (Nelson Mashita), a famous author and former radical dissident who has sacrificed activism for fame and fortune.
Sulaiman’s past re-emerges when he realizes his cleaning woman, Wardina (Emily Kuroda), is also his former fiancee, a woman he abandoned to imprisonment and torture by authorities seeking information about him. Kuroda is a marvel, a force of nature who lifts the plot from its temperate course and infuses it with excitement as she described her dead-end life and roach-infested living quarters.
Sulaiman, as played by Mashita, is a credible case of selling out, even if his low-key persona makes it difficult to believe he was ever the wildly committed rebel. Nor is his gradual return to former idealism completely convincing. Yew’s resolutions feel uncertain, indicating confusion about how to wind up his story, and scenes grow episodic.
The inclusion of a transvestite suicide bomber with AIDS (talented Esther K. Chae) is too much contrived freight, and when the play concludes, there’s a feeling that plot strands could be compressed and shifted to achieve the shattering climax the production clearly needs.
Ultimately, the greatest distinction of “A Distant Shore” is its strength as a showcase for actors tackling widely divergent parts. Steinberg demonstrates remarkable range evolving from a morally upright businessman to a manipulative male prostitute, and Kuroda’s brilliance as disillusioned maid is matched by her portrayal of Zul’s possessive mother in act one. Blinkoff’s transformation from icy civil servant to risk-taking journalist certifies his versatility, just as Tomita’s trapped bride and crisply practical businesswoman strongly highlight totally opposite personalities.