'The Far Country' at Berkeley Rep: Lloyd Suh's straight-ahead theatrical satisfaction

  • by Jim Gladstone
  • Tuesday March 19, 2024
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Tommy Bo and cast in Lloyd Suh's 'The Far Country'  (photo: Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre)
Tommy Bo and cast in Lloyd Suh's 'The Far Country' (photo: Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre)

Bay Area stages often brim with bold experiments: Immersive settings, scrambled chronologies, and loads of mind-bending self-reflexivity. But while I'll admit to being a bit afflicted with Post-Modern Will Rogers Syndrome (I've never met a meta I didn't like, at least a little), I took enormous pleasure in playwright Lloyd Suh's sturdily carpentered, gimmick-free "The Far Country," now at the Berkeley Rep under the seamless direction of Jennifer Chang.

Dialogue without forced poetics; a narrative with clear forward momentum; and subject matter —Chinese immigration to San Francisco in the early 20th Century— that's topical, emotional and intellectually gripping, add up to a highly accessible play. You can feel confident taking your friends, a date, or your parents to "The Far Country." If you have smart, attentive kids over age 12 you probably should take them.

Feodor Chin and Aaron Wilton in Lloyd Suh's Lloyd Suh's 'The Far Country' (photo: Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre)  

Scene setting
Before a single character takes the stage, the scenario is established by enlarged vintage newspaper pages splayed across a high wall topped with coils of razor wire (The projection design is by Hsuan-Kuang Hsieh, whose sensitive work also brings this production to a heart stirring conclusion):

"Chinese had been fleeing their own country's economic despair and immigrating to the U.S. since the gold rush. But by 1882, with racism swelling and white men arguing that Chinatown was a harbor of vice, and Chinese workers were taking their jobs, the government banned all newcomers other than blood relatives of those already here."

Among the last snippets of projected text I managed to read was "Hip! Hurrah! The white man is on top."

Then the lights came up on a government official (Wilton) questioning Gee (Feodor Chin), a Chinese man.

Tess Lina and Tommy Bo in Lloyd Suh's in Lloyd Suh's 'The Far Country' (photo: Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre)  

Son seeking
It is 1909 and Gee is petitioning to return to China in order to visit family and fetch his eldest son, whom he wants to join him in running his San Francisco laundry business.

During the great earthquake and fire of 1906, the U.S. government's immigration records have been lost. So have Gee's personal papers, but the burden of proof that he can legally leave the country and then return is placed on the lesser-resourced immigrant.

Wilton delivers a richly textured performance in the small role of Gee's interlocutor: As this bureaucrat tries suppressing smiles in response to Gee's affable humor and flattering tributes to American life, we get a glimpse of empathy and humanity beneath his racial biases and vocationally-mandated hard shell.

Chin delivers an even more thrillingly multidimensional characterization of Gee, the complexity of which is not revealed until the subsequent scene, when he has returned to rural China to fetch teenage Moon (Tommy Bo) from his mother. Suh's script features a genuine surprise here, and Chin delivers it with an audience-destabilizing sting.

In the angst-filled separation of Moon and his mother, Low (Tess Linn, alternately steely and fragile), Suh touches on dilemmas familiar to many immigrants from around the world: What is gained and what is lost in the geographic fragmentation of families? To what extent does providing financial support from abroad compensate for the sense of emotional abandonment felt by those left behind and the untethered rootlessness felt by those who move a world away?

Tommy Bo and Whit K. Lee in Lloyd Suh's 'The Far Country'  

Moon rising
The play's centerpiece finds Moon among other lonely, displaced Chinese in a decrepit Angel Island holding camp, where he is repeatedly questioned over a grueling 17-month period in efforts to prove him a "paper son," whose relationship to Gee is a fraud.

Cruel, but alas not unusual, this agonizing limbo period threatens Moon's will and sanity, tempting him and many of his compatriots to give up on their American dreams and return to their impoverished homeland.

Where Act I's immigrant vs authority confrontation found Gee aggressively peppered with questions, Act II has Moon under verbal assault. Enforcing policies undergirded by prejudice has institutionalized a sense of white privilege and dominance. As Moon's interrogator, John Keabler frighteningly conveys corrupt, self-satisfied authority, relishing his power and brandishing it like a verbal cudgel.

Later, we join Moon —who has ultimately been permitted to join Gee and help run the laundry— on his own return trip to China. He struggles to rationalize his choice to continue in San Francisco ("I strive to live among people who consider me less than human") while at the same time seeking an arranged marriage so he can bring a woman back with him, as both wife and servant.

That woman he finds is Yuen (Sharon Shao), both a realist and an optimist, who agrees to join Moon more eagerly than expected. Yuen's optimistic adventurousness in the face of certain hardship feels a smidge illogical, but, due in no small part to Shao's gung-ho Huck Finn performance, it's believably infectious.

Her support of Moon and an aging Gee as they persevere in America helps all three develop a sense of self-satisfaction within a hostile environment. Together, they are able to train their focus on building a better future rather than dwelling in the memories of their anguished pasts.

'The Far Country,' through April 14. $22.50-$134. Berkeley Rep, 2025 Addison St. (510) 647-2949. www.berkeleyrep.org

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