Pain makes man think. Thought makes man wise. Wisdom makes life endurable. A lesson in life well learned beautifully illustrated as Laurel Mill Playhouse presents The Teahouse of the August Moon. John Patrick’s Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning play is a rich cultural drama that explores the American military takeover in Okinawa, Japan post US victory in World War II. It has moments of laughter, moments of sadness, moments of frustration, and deeply thought provoking questions that will keep you engaged through the duration of the show.
Set Designers Mark T. Allen and R. Anne Hull craft the elegant splendor of the orient right on the stage. The creative use of five fold-down bamboo shaded blinds to shroud the stage in various phases of mystery are a clever use of incorporating cultural elements into practical design. Allen and Hull paint a gorgeous island backdrop all around the stage, the bright clear blue sky and the warm sandy floor to help the audience maintain the island illusions.
Costume Designer Maureen Rogers takes the play even deeper on a voyage into the Japanese island with several styles of kimonos; casual and lackluster for those that inhabit the island before the cultural revolution, and more exquisite ones made of bright colors and shiny silks for once a major event occurs in the storyline. Highlighting Rogers’ work is her bright selections for Lotus Blossom’s two kimonos, the first being a rich citrus and melon striped design that is richer and more elegant than those of the common islanders, and her second kimono is a passionate red silk with the proper flowing sleeves and wide complimentary sash.
Director Mark T. Allen guides a great ensemble through this lengthy drama with only a few flaws to speak of; the major one being the pacing of the show overall. When a show runs longer than three hours pacing is a critical element to the success of the performance. Unfortunately, many of scenes, particularly the ones where Col Purdy’s (Ed Silverstein) dialogue is heavy, drag with unnatural pauses. Silverstein often gives the feeling that he is searching for lines when he pauses and when he does deliver his lines they are done so with extreme sluggishness.
Allen’s other minor speed bump is the elaborate scene changes. All five blinds are down hiding the scenery that needs to be moved, leaving the audience in the darkness while they wait for the change to happen; only to have the narrator step on moments later with commentary that could have occurred in front of the blinds while the change was happening behind.
The core ensemble in the production makes for a strong performance. There are three main characters that carry the action of the show and between their delivery of lines and their moments of deep character reflection, the trio carries the show to success.
Captain Fisby (Ed Silverstein) is the quintessential bumbling fool in the everyman’s army. Trying to be the upstart model solider in uniform, Henry’s gradual transition from stalwart and stiff-upper lip to lackadaisical and relaxed is comical and well-timed. He masters nervousness and exasperation in his strained vocalizations and erratic physicality. His interactions with both Lotus Blossom and Sakini are genuine and amusing; particularly the way he adjusts to the cultural norm at the behest of the island village’s only Geisha girl. All around Henry makes for an entertaining player, balancing out the extreme comedy doled out by Sakini and the more heartfelt traumatic emotions displayed by Lotus Blossom.
As the village’s first and only Geisha, Lotus Blossom (Natesha Vaillancourt) is a demure and pure innocent presence on the stage. Vaillancourt carries her character with grace and refined dignity, and she’s put her research into the character going so far as to paint her full Geisha makeup early in act III complete with the bland stripe of skin down her neck. She’s physically engaging, particularly when struggling with Fisby in the office over getting him comfortable, and her emotional depth knows no limit, which she easily proves during her emotionally tearful breakdown at the end of the show. Vaillancourt provides an impeccable performance.
Guiding the show with her split performance is Carleigh Jones playing as both Sakini the character in-scene and Sakini the narrator, an interpreter for the audience. A more humbled and intelligent performer as the audience’s interpreter, Jones’s voice lends thought to brilliant insight and deep wisdom. As her in-scene character she adds worlds of comedic relief to the performance. Jones’ consistency with her muddled Asian-English accent is impressive, sustaining such a tricky sound for the duration of the play is no simple feat. Creating a yin and yang between her more serious moments and her moments of comical stereotype in-scene, Jones upholds the delicate balance of a multi-faceted character giving a well rounded and extremely satisfying performance.
And for every great trio of stars there is a great trio of supporters, and this play is no exception. Making for the most animated of the crowd is Miss Higa Jiga (Dana Medford). Flawlessly delivering her Japanese lines, she uses her facial expressions and vocal intonation to translate all of her frustrations to the audience so that even without an interpreter her intentions are clear. Making up for the position of authority in the show is Sgt. Gregovich (Marc Rehr) providing great moment of buffoonery and a rare drop of emotion towards the end of the show. And keep your ears out for Mr. Oshira (Bernie Noeller) a man who masters the art of broken English as the village elder.
Laurel Mill Playhouse’s Teahouse of the August Moon has an overall well-rounded cast performing a lengthy drama with great emotional merit.
Running Time: Three hours and 20 minutes, with two intermissions.
The Teahouse of the August Moon plays through February 24, 2013 at Laurel Mill Playhouse – 508 Main Street, in Laurel, MD. For reservations call the box office at (301) 617-9906.