To set the personal tragedy of one small family within the larger political context of the fraught relationship between North Korea and Japan would seem to be an inherently theatrical idea.
And Japanese-Northern Irish playwright Francis Turnly seized upon it for “The Great Wave,” basing it loosely on a true news story from the late 20th century.
The drama, now in an American premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, takes place from 1979 to 2003. It opens within the suitably thrilling atmosphere of a stormy sea, represented by well-designed sound effects (by Bray Poor) and video projections (Tara Knight).
Teenage Hanako (Jo Mei), walking on the beach near her home one wild night, is kidnapped and transported across a narrow sea to nearby North Korea, where the Dear Leader orders her to train a Korean spy (Cindy Im) in Japanese language and customs so that she can pass for a native.
Hanako’s extraordinary ordeal is the play’s main focus, as the scenes move fluidly between North Korea and her family’s coastal home in Japan, where her widowed mother (Sharon Omi) and sister Reiko (Yurié Collins) try to find out what happened to her.
But Turnly’s play feels contrived and flat, despite being steeped in such potentially powerful elements as political tensions and maneuvering, imprisonment in scary North Korea, and high-pitched emotions all around.
Part of the problem is the playwright’s stilted, banal dialogue, full of clichés, in a storyline that calls for poetic or at least deeply expressive and literate treatment. (The phrases “What kind of person are you?” and “What sort of man are you?” both appear, and when bereft Reiko gets proof that Hanako is in North Korea, and shrieks “She’s alive!” it’s hard not to think of Frankenstein.)
Nor does it help that the usually stellar director Mark Wing-Davey stages the stolidly chronological narrative in a way that emphasizes its plodding progression.
In one long, potentially moving monologue, for instance, a North Korean man confesses the trauma he’s lived through — but he’s eating the entire time he’s talking. Yes, he’s lived through starvation, but that directorial choice lends a distracting artificiality to what should have been a pure and powerful moment, and it’s an example of the kind of artifice that playwright and director have constructed.
Bottom line: This is a complex, interesting story that, at least as seen in this overlong rendition gussied up with scenic effects, might have been better served in a non-theatrical genre.
The Great Wave
Presented by Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Where: Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays-Fridays; 7 p.m. Wednesdays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes Oct. 27
Tickets: $35 to $97
Contact: (510) 647-2949, berkeleyrep.org