“Walk the Mountain” feels unfinished. As she weaves together stories of Vietnamese and Cambodian women who recount their experiences of war, writer-actor Jude Narita struggles for both dramatic cohesion and a sense of timing. Though intermittent episodes are gripping, the play as a whole lacks the weight of its subject.
A major obstacle is the blend of film and acting, awkwardly overseen by director Darling Narita, the performer’s daughter. Clips of Ho Chi Minh or brutally maimed Vietnamese children flicker past as bumpers between scenes, but they often end well before the elder Narita reappears. This leaves yawning gaps of space, which is surprising considering the production had time to iron out kinks during its limited run last spring at Gotham’s 59E59.
Once they begin, the performed segments often feel just as disjointed. At the perf reviewed, Narita seemed to fumble for her lines, often repeating herself or stretching out an “um” to fill time. These speech fillips may belong to characters — Narita works from interviews of real war survivors — but thesp appeared thrown by them several times. Such an ambivalent theatrical conceit distracts from the play.
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Narita does occasionally connect with the material. Particularly harrowing is the tale of a 1974 airlift for Vietnamese children that resulted in unspeakable tragedy.
Too often, though, stories abandon specifics for generalities. A nurse, for instance, tells a crowd about the hideous conditions in her wartime hospital and thanks them for bringing needed supplies. However, she never specifies who her listeners are. The nationality or even occupation of her audience would have enormous impact on what she’s saying, and by dropping that information, Narita allows the segment to become ambiguously sad instead of specifically, politically engaging.
Other scenes opt for mawkish symbols. In the opening, Narita moves her arms in dreamy arcs while telling a fable about how Vietnamese people were born from dragon eggs. Her voice is breathy like a mystic’s, but she merely speaks the words without transmitting their sense. Careful attention is required to pick the verbs out of her flat delivery, making it almost impossible to feel the tale’s emotional impact.
Even the airlift story, for which Narita finds a more varied tone, gets diluted because she tells it while putting red flowers in a wicker vase. This gesture carries the superficial appearance of meaning, but red flowers and their falling petals are too cliched to be honestly resonant. They are just one more element that makes “Walk the Mountain” a rough sketch of war instead of a finished portrait.