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White to Gray
by Rob Maesaka
Directed by Deanna Jent
Mustard Seed Theatre
February 6, 2015

Ben Nordstrom, Charlie Barron Photo by John Lamb Mustard Seed Theatre

Ben Nordstrom, Charlie Barron
Photo by John Lamb
Mustard Seed Theatre

For its current production, Mustard Seed Theatre is presenting a world premiere production of a new play by local playwright Rob Maesaka. White to Gray employs the backdrop of an ocean cruise during the time of the bombing of Pearl Harbor to explore issues of suspicion, racial and ethnic tensions, love and loyalty. While it’s certainly a worthy subject matter and intriguing premise, the play does have its obvious faults, despite an extremely good-looking technical production.

The somewhat soapy tale focuses on Japanese Americans Sumiko (Fox Smith) and her mother, Keiko (Paige Russell), who are preparing to move from Hawaii–where their family has lived for many years–to San Francisco following the death of Keiko’s husband, Sumiko’s father. They’re traveling on the SS Lurline, a passenger liner, not realizing that Sumiko’s former boyfriend, the wealthy and aimless Peter (Ben Nordstrom) is also on the ship, having deliberately booked passage in an effort to win back Sumiko’s affections.  Also on the ship with Peter is his friend Jimmy (Charlie Barron), a Navy Reservist who has tagged along for the ride.  Unfortunately, they’ve chosen December 6, the day before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, to start their cruise.  After the bombing, the ship becomes commandeered for military use, and all Navy personnel, including Jimmy, are called into active duty. Suspicions are high, and every Japanese-American passenger is detained for questioning, including Keiko and Sumiko.  Both Peter and Jimmy are then torn between their loyalty to their country and their loyalty to their friends and, in Peter’s case, the woman he loves.

The treatment of Japanese Americans by the US government following the bombing of Pearl Harbor was both a tragedy and a travesty, and this play does its best to capture the atmosphere of that time, when so many innocent Americans came under suspicion simply because of their heritage.  This subject, as well as the concept of cruise liners being drafted into war service and going from “white to gray”, is a fascinating subject for a play. Unfortunately, this particular play has its problems, suffering from overly long, drawn out scenes with little energy, especially at the beginning of the play.  The cast is uneven as well, with good performances by Nordstrom and especially Barron, and Russell’s feisty, proud portrayal of Keiko despite an uneven accent.  Taylor Campbell is also suitably menacing as suspicious Navy officer. Smith, as Sumiko, has her best moments in her scenes with Nordstrom, but her energy is lacking for much of rest of the time.  There are fine performances from Chuck Brinkley, Jeff Kargus, and Greg Lhamon as crewmen on the ship, although there is not particularly much for them to do.

Technically, the show looks and sounds excellent. Dunsi Dai’s set effectively suggests a ship at sea, with movable set elements to suggest the deck and cabins. There are also striking period-specific costumes by Jane Sullivan, as well as effective lighting by Maureen Berry.  The look and atmosphere of a cruise ship and, eventually, a military vessel is rendered well, although the action of the play itself tends to the melodramatic.

Overall, I would say that White to Gray is an ambitious project with an interesting concept. The presentation of that concept, however, is entertaining but uneven in its pacing. It’s a promising script that could use a little bit of work. Despite its limitations, though, Mustard Seed has presented a great looking production that manages to entertain and inform.

Fox Smith, Ben Nordstrom Photo by John Lamb Mustard Seed Theatre

Fox Smith, Ben Nordstrom
Photo by John Lamb
Mustard Seed Theatre

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