John Olive’s “The Summer Moon,” ostensibly about the Japanese auto industry’s first steps in America, is a schizophrenic work: The first act concerns an awkward romance between a stuffy, callow Japanese man and a moody but capable American woman of Japanese ancestry; the second act follows the man’s bizarre indoctrination into American consumerism via trial by fire. Both acts rep a sort of pilgrim’s progress for Naotake Fukushima (Greg Watanabe), but neither provides a truly rounded picture of his journey or its implications. Taken as a whole, Olive’s play is decidedly less than the sum of its parts.
Employing a combination of solo narration and dialogue, Olive has Naotake pretty much tell his own story, but such technique inevitably leaves out crucial information. Moreover, Olive’s desire to give life to two other characters, Rosie Yoshida (Tamlyn Tomita) and Arnie Stengel (John K. Linton), distracts our attention from Naotake’s tale. The jarring tonal shift between the two acts, from light comedy to antic surrealism, doesn’t help matters.
Yet under Mark Rucker’s fluid and sensitive direction, the more lyrical passages in Olive’s work prove gratifying. Throughout the play, Naotake quotes the poetry of Matsuo Basho to illuminate his feelings. And though these digressions do little to advance the story, the intrinsic beauty of the words is reward enough. The play’s comic moments, too, will grip audiences, especially if they are easily amused. Naotake speaks bad English upon arriving in America, and an endless series of malapropisms (“I am behind myself with excitement”) elicits predictable yuks.
Ultimately, though, Olive’s play, despite its amiability, exerts little pull. Though Naotake’s adventures prove believable enough, the rustic Rosie seems invented of whole cloth, as does her shell-shocked husband Arnie. These characters also introduce a whole series of anachronisms certain to annoy sticklers. The play takes far too many modern-day truisms for granted.
The acting is never less than professional, but somehow always less than convincing. Watanabe seems strained as Naotake, and Tomita appears to be trying too hard. Linton is just plain manic, and far too much so.
Technically, the production manages far better. Nephelie Andonyadis’ plain set features a desert terrain that serves multifarious purposes well. And Geoff Korf’s lighting proves essential to this production’s effective sense of atmosphere.