THE FAR COUNTRY, Kept Farther Away — Review
As in The Chinese Lady, one of this year’s best New York stage outings, The Far Country exhibits playwright Lloyd Suh’s penchant for crafting works that use the turbulent history of the Asian-American experience to illuminate the dynamics of presentation: public and private, inter- and intraracial. In this new piece, now in performance at the Atlantic Theater Company, his keen understanding of what it means to perform for others, and especially for The Other, has once again led him to uncover forgotten, essential immigrant histories. But, in a premiere production under Eric Ting’s solemn direction, its dramatic inertia leaves immediacy far from the promised land.
The heavily segmented play follows the ripple effects of the Chinese Exclusion Act, an 1882 law which banned immigration from the country which virtually built the country’s first railroad line, and was renewed and reinforced through 1943. It begins in San Francisco, 1909, where launderer Gee (Jinn S. Kim) is requesting U.S. citizenship so he can travel to China to visit family and be allowed to safely return. Though his conversations with the interpreter he’s given is presented to us in perfect English, his pleas to the white government official come off in an accented tongue.
That scene’s wooden dialogue aptly reflects its bureaucratic stateliness and the isolation of immigrant isolation, but unfortunately carries throughout the lines Suh charts from Gee’s request to the exploitative damage of human trafficking, as the ostensible Chinese-American (his birthright claim is called into question) eventually returns from his homeland with a penniless young boy in tow. As the young man grows into indentured servitude to pay his travel costs back, with little money going back to his family back in Guangdong, he is forced into the impossible situation of having to feed that very cycle.
Each of the five Chinese characters introduced are made to carry the burden of racist legislature and imperialism—we are reminded that China’s economic woes were in part due to meddlesome American commerce—but Suh remains fixed upon sapping each interaction from any emotion, and Ting’s stiff direction makes his characters soldier through without much insight into their inner devastation.
Aside from Kim’s initial scene, only Shannon Tyo (who shined as the titular Chinese Lady at the Public) is able to break free from this oppressive approach as a young woman who stuns her would-be transporter with her clearheaded quickness late in the play. Suh can write the hell out of a woman who goes off-script, and Tyo makes the most of her performance by deploying her gift for portraying weightiness shot through a morose sense of comedy. The shockwave of theatricality she sends through Clint Ramos’ pretty, underused set, however, arrives long after the ship has sailed on these dreary goings-on.
The Far Country is in performance through January 1, 2023 at the Atlantic Theater Company on West 20th Street in New York City. For tickets and more information, visit here.