If you haven’t read David Guterson’s award-winning 1994 novel “Snow Falling on Cedars,” you might not realize until fairly far along in Kevin McKeon’s stage adaptation that there’s a main character — Ishmael, a white boy living on an island in Puget Sound in Washington. During the course of the play, onstage in a TheatreWorks production, he grows up and goes off to fight in World War II.
In doing so, he leaves behind his childhood playmate Hatsue.
Their youthful, star-crossed love story is at the heart of the play, but for various reasons it’s hard to become truly emotionally invested in it.
Without a doubt, the play’s theme is potent: racial discrimination against Japanese-American citizens post-Pearl Harbor and after World War II, which is uncomfortably similar to the pervasive post-9/11 prejudice against Arabs and Muslims.
And McKeon’s adaptation — which was written for Seattle’s Book-It Repertory Theatre and is receiving a sumptuous local premiere at TheatreWorks — gracefully blends dialogue and narrative from the book. So theoretically the play ought to be more involving than it is.
Part of the problem is overpopulation. Amid the swirl of characters — fishing families, lawyers, strawberry pickers and others — and in the play’s nonlinear structure, the focus gets murky (it veers back and forth from the 1954 murder trial of local fisherman Kabuo to the pre-WWII-era as Ishmael and Hatsue grow up together).
A lot is happening, especially when citizens of Japanese ancestry are relocated to internment camps, and we follow Hatsue and her family to Manzanar.
And Kabuo’s trial doesn’t generate much suspense or intensity — early on, the defense lawyer announces that this is a trial about racial discrimination.
We may wonder why Kabuo’s childhood friend Carl ended up drowned in his own fishing net, or whether the forces of mindless prejudice will succeed in convicting Kabuo.
But even that plotline, like the thwarted love affair of Ishmael and Hatsue, feels thin and too obviously in service of the theme.
Adding to the distractions, many of the actors play several roles apiece, with assorted funny accents and quirky physicalizations meant to distinguish one character from another. But the result feels caricaturish.
Yet under Robert Kelley’s direction, some performances shine, especially Edward Sarafian, who’s gratifyingly simple and strong as the defense attorney, and Maya Erskine’s poignant Hatsue. Tim Chiou as Kabuo and Will Collyer as Ishmael also have some powerful moments.
Especially stunning is Andrea Bechert’s luminous set design depicting the island and desert landscapes.
Snow Falling on Cedars
Presented by TheatreWorks
Where: Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes April 24
Tickets: $24 to $67
Contact: (650) 463-1960, www.theatreworks.org